By Stacey Harrison
For the most part, my conversation with Stephen K. Bannon is civil and friendly. This might surprise folks who expect the director of the unabashedly pro-Sarah Palin documentary The Undefeated — which airs on ReelzChannel Sunday at 8pm — to be a firebrand mouthpiece of the Tea Party movement. But Bannon is among those who says he seeks a friendlier discourse in the political landscape.
Still, he couldn’t resist lobbing a few snark-laden bombs in the direction of Game Change, the HBO film that dramatizes Palin’s unlikely and meteoric rise to prominence during the 2008 presidential campaign. It stars Julianne Moore as Palin, along with Ed Harris as John McCain and Woody Harrelson as McCain’s campaign manager, Steve Schmidt. It premieres the night before Bannon’s documentary, a bit of scheduling that has caused each of the films to be considered counterprogramming to the other. In the press release announcing ReelzChannel’s airing of The Undefeated, Bannon referred to Game Change as a “fictionalized hit piece.”
He tells me, in fact, that he believes Game Change was filmed with the expressed intent of hitting the airwaves four days after Super Tuesday, when 10 states held their elections in the Republican primary race. Conventional wisdom, back when production of the film started, was that Palin would presumably be the front-runner for the nomination, and Game Change was meant “to destroy her.” As portrayed by Julianne Moore, Palin is clueless about world history and foreign policy, having to be told the Nazis’ role in World War II, and learning what NAFTA is. She also becomes drunk on her newfound power, and tries to hijack the entire campaign to suit her agenda.
“If you [combine] the cumulative IQs of Julianne Moore, Ed Harris and Woody Harrelson, she can bench-press those,” he says. But his harshest words are saved for the real-life Schmidt, thought to be a primary source for the book on which Game Change is based, calling him “a complete and total incompetent, and a known liar.”
“To cover himself, he makes stuff up out of whole cloth,” he says. “He’s a lowlife, people know he’s a lowlife — you don’t have to ask me, call around and ask people in the business. Nobody will back up any story he puts out there. All he wants to do is reinforce the meme that she’s Caribou Barbie meets Bible Spice.”
Bannon is not alone, of course, in condemning Game Change. Several former aides and advisors to the McCain-Palin campaign came out to publicly decry the film’s version of events, while HBO and screenwriter Danny Strong have defended their portrayal.
It was in fighting that popular perception of Palin as a know-nothing backwoods hick that Bannon says he found his purpose with The Undefeated. Though the film opens with a montage of verbal abuse directed at Palin by a host of celebrities and media pundits after she took the national stage, its focus lies mainly in Palin’s earlier career in Alaska. It was there where she made a name for herself revitalizing her hometown of Wasilla as mayor, then working her way up to governor while taking on the establishment GOP machine that had gotten far too cozy with Big Oil. His main sources are people who worked closely with Palin in those days, and Palin’s own autobiography Going Rogue, the audiobook version of which — read by Palin herself — serves as the film’s narration.
“I did not make this for Palinistas,” he says. “The Palinistas know the story. I made it for non-Palinistas who didn’t know about her standing up to Big Oil, who didn’t know about her standing up to the top Republican establishment in Alaska.” And, in his eyes, he’s been successful, judging from the audiences he spoke with during The Undefeated‘s theatrical tour last summer. “Two-thirds of the people who saw it came out of there and said they would not just support her, but actually work for her campaign or give her money. Even liberals who saw it, and even people who don’t like her personally and she just grates on them, they came out and kind of admired her.”
He also calls his film an indictment on the mainstream media, which he says includes the conservative-leaning Fox News, for not bringing Palin’s full story to light.
Much of the antipathy toward Palin, which Bannon insists comes more from the Republican establishment than from liberals, is rooted in her blue-collar, working-class background, as well as her “you betcha” accent. She represents “Walmart Nation,” he says, and “urban sophisticates” just can’t abide the idea of someone like that being in power. But they underestimate her intelligence at their own risk, he says, pointing to her accomplishments with regard to Alaska’s energy policy.
“It’s an enormously complicated topic that she mastered and then sold to the Alaskan people, and [then she] came up with unanimous consent in the House and the Senate of Alaska,” he says. “Nobody’s ever done that. You can’t be an idiot and do that. … She’s a tough, smart hombre. Is she going to be at the faculty club at Princeton? No. But there’s a lot of guys out there that are very successful, and they’re not going to be at the faculty club at Princeton. She’s got applied knowledge. She’s very smart. She’s a very quick study.”
Bannon also says that if Palin did decide to throw her hat in the ring for the 2012 election, she would blow away the competition.
“There is absolutely no excitement in the Republican base for this election cycle,” he says. “We have three candidates, whom I think are all fine guys but each one will be a different type of disaster against President Obama. She would have electrified the base. She would have been able to take the fight to President Obama and had a real, clear alternative.”
For now, she’ll just have to settle for monopolizing the weekend in polarizing entertainment.
At the time of our interview, Bannon was still mourning the loss of his friend and fellow conservative activist Andrew Breitbart — who is a featured talking head in The Undefeated — and says that while he wishes debates like the one over Game Change could be more civil, he doesn’t see that happening anytime soon.
“I hate to say it, but I think we’re in a time of raised voices,” he says. “There are just such wide gulfs in this country of ideology. The reality is that these are almost unbridgeable gaps, and I think it’s just going to be uncivil for a long time. … I’d love it to be more civil, but it’s not. I think that’s why people like Gov. Palin and even Barack Obama come up during these times. These are polarizing figures and they have strong ideologies, but that’s what you get in these times. I think it’s actually going to get a lot more uncivil before it gets more civil.”
Photo: Courtesy of Victory Film Group