Game Change is the new HBO original movie from director Jay Roach and Danny Strong, the team that brought us Recount about 2000 Bush/Gore presidential election. Game Change deals with the 2008 presidential election, and is based on the book of the same name by journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. While the book deals with both the Democratic and Republican sides of the election, the movie deals exclusively with the Republican campaign, specifically with the selection of Sarah Palin as vice presidential candidate. The film stars Ed Harris as John McCain and Woody Harrelson as campaign strategist Steve Schmidt, but Julianne Moore is receiving the most attention for her portrayal of Sarah Palin (we just never seem to get tired of Sarah Palin impressions).
The movie has been scrutinized for its accuracy, but I am not going to address that here, but will rather leave it to others to do that research. As a passive viewer of politics, however, this film was both fascinating and entertaining. The film seamlessly marries archival footage of interviews and public appearances (though not of Palin, McCain, or Schmidt), reenactments of memorable campaign moments such as debates and press conferences, and behind the scenes material that we’re never been privy to. This last category obviously makes up the bulk of the movie, and is the cause for complaints from those claiming inaccuracies.
It is impossible to watch any act of political theater without yearning to know what’s really going on. What is that politician really thinking? What do they do when the cameras turn off? And, the largest question from the 2008 presidential election, What in God’s name was running through John McCain’s head when the seasoned politician and experienced candidate selected Palin as his running mate? This movie answers those questions and more, and is an intriguing glimpse behind the curtain.
The film begins during the primaries with McCain trailing in the polls, then quickly jumps to him as the nominee in need of a running mate. We watch the conversations with advisors as they consider various angles before finally arriving on Palin. She is truly a horse designed by committee, fulfilling all of the specified requirements, yet completely falling short of a total package. After an incredible performance at the Republican National Convention, Palin’s now well-known weaknesses begin to surface as an entire campaign staff pulls together in an ultimately futile attempt to Eliza Doolittle the inexperienced Palin. When the press turns critical, Palin proves not up to the harshness of political life on the national stage. She soon devolves into the antics of a petulant child, texting and ignoring her aids during their increasingly desperate attempts to prepare her for her interviews and debate.
All in all, the portrayal is both harsh and sympathetic. Palin’s ignorance and inexperience is center stage, climaxing when she explains that we went to war in Iraq after Hussein bombed us on September 11. What comes through as well, thanks to Moore’s nuanced performance, is Palin’s humanity. She was a small fish, suddenly in the world’s biggest pond, and you sympathize with her as you watch her unravel. It’s indisputable that she never should have been picked for the ticket and was unqualified for the job in every possible way, but once in that position, I’m not sure that another political novice could have handled the pressure and criticism any better. Some of the most poignant moments of the movie are when the camera lingers on a close shot of Palin’s face as she watches Tina Fey’s now canonical impressions of the governor. Palin had in a matter of weeks gone from being the most popular governor in the nation to the butt of a national joke. I would have had a bit of a melt down, too. Palin has publicly stated that the movie is false and that she will not watch it. Without a doubt, Palin does not look good in the movie, but Moore’s portrayal is much more sympathetic and humanizing than any other account than I’ve heard or read.
Who really comes of well, however, is John McCain. (Really.) He is utterly sympathetic and 100% likable. (I’m serious.) He’s the kind of man you’d want to have a beer with. What’s more, he is the voice of reason, rationality, and ethics. He fights to select Joe Lieberman as his running mate, because it would have been good for the country, but is coerced by his team to make the politically advantageous choice of Sarah Palin. He refused to play dirty and resisted attacking Obama’s associations with Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers, attacks which ultimately became significant parts of the campaign. When he became aware of Palin’s poor performance (he was kept in the dark for a long time), he proposes a break from the strenuous preparation and training, and instead insists that she be reunited with her family to be surrounded by people who love her. Again, I cannot attest to the veracity of this movie, but if there is truth to it, this is a side of McCain that I had previously not seen. Ed Harris’ impression is not as uncanny as Moore’s, but that’s why this is a movie, and not an SNL sketch. Harris masterfully captures McCain’s character, even if the voice and posture aren’t quite there.
As always, Woody Harrelson is fantastic. His character is the grounding force holding together the campaign, though ultimately responsible for its fatal blow by participating in the selection of Palin. There is not much in the way of character development or background story here, but his character is essential to the narrative, and Harrelson delivers exactly what was needed.
On the whole, I recommend this movie to anyone fascinated with political theater, anyone who wants to get to know Palin or McCain on another level, or honestly, anyone that wants to watch Sarah Palin be an idiot for two hours. (Let’s be honest, that was a huge enjoyment of that campaign, and it’s a huge reason that a lot of people are going to see this movie.) I’m honestly still undecided as to whether this movie left me more or less cynical about the political process, but I suppose I’m just glad to know that there is a thought process behind these decisions, even if it still baffles.