Filmmaker Nick Broomfield makes documentaries about infamous women, and he has a penchant for keeping himself front and center in his films in a way that often mirrors his subjects’ narcissistic tendencies. With Sarah Palin: You Betcha! , he’s found the perfect subject to justify this stylistic approach.
The British provocateur travels to Alaska to interview friends and foes of the 2008 Republican vice-presidential nominee, scoring sit-downs with Palin’s parents, as well as with old political rivals who may have an axe to grind. Broomfield doesn’t approach these interviews with full objectivity; he clearly feels that Palin’s devout religious beliefs might not make her an ideal political figure, and even among the few friends of hers he can get to talk to him on camera, they repeatedly discuss her faith.
Sure, he digs up some fun, gossipy stuff, such as stories from an old high-school acquaintance that reveal the truth about the history of her nickname, “Sarah Barracuda.” Broomfield also manages to track down another former classmate, now living in the Middle East, who paints a portrait of Palin as a typical mean girl.
But these barely scandalous segments are relatively few and far between. Broomfield can’t resist poking a little fun, but he’s rather serious in his intentions -- he wants to show why he believes Palin would make for a lousy political leader. He avoids true muckraking; there is no talk of the more-damaging and unsubstantiated rumors that have surrounded the former governor since her speedy ascension onto the national political stage. This refusal to get into the mud helps bolster Broomfield’s respectability, even though he can’t resist including an interview with Levi Johnston’s sister, who has nothing kind to say about how the Palin family has treated her.
Broomfield has always been drawn to infamous women, but his opinion towards them has varied wildly. With Heidi Fleiss and Aileen Wuornos, he attempted to show how both women came to be who they were. There is an empathy in those films that is missing from his approach to Courtney Love and Palin. Granted, the former two were more helpful to Broomfield during the making of his movies, while Love and Palin both took steps to squelch Broomfield’s production -- either through financial means, or by simply refusing to allow others to talk about them on the record. His approach, though it owes a debt to tabloid tradition, is more CBS than TMZ: The movie provides an impressive history lesson on how the one-time beauty-pageant queen and sports broadcaster entered the political arena and built up her support to such a degree that she became governor.
Broomfield’s quest for answers about scandalous people, not about scandal itself, makes him such a fascinating documentarian. And while Sarah Palin: You Betcha! teems with his trademark deadpan sarcasm, he’s smart enough not to let the snarkiness undercut his journalistic ethics.
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