Game Change is based on a small portion of the best-selling book of the same name by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin: the portion that eviscerates the John McCain campaign’s selection of Sarah Palin to be his running-mate in the 2008 presidential campaign. Indeed, while Palin herself has said watching this HBO production (premiering on March 10) would be “a waste of time,” she need not fear for erosion to her reputation. She is impersonated here with mimicry of the high order by Julianne Moore; she is portrayed as a devoted mother, and a plucky, if stressed-out and carb-deprived, campaigner.
No, it’s the staff surrounding Palin and McCain – embodied with often breathtaking accuracy by Ed Harris – that is criticized and humiliated by the Game Change adaptation from scripter Danny Strong. The TV movie’s narrative homes in on the crucial error made right from the start: that Palin’s vice-presidential vetting process lasted a mere five days (other possible veeps were subjected to months of scrutiny, we’re told) simply because McCain strategist Steve Schmidt (a gleaming-domed, ferocious Woody Harrelson) was convinced Palin was a “star,” a charismatic caparison/younger-demo complement to McCain. No matter that she had no idea why, for example, North and South Korea were two separate countries, or that “the Fed” refers to the Federal Reserve and not “the federal government.”
Jay Roach, who directed the Austin Powers films and won an Emmy for the HBO political drama Recount, knows from parody and keeps his actors from slipping into it throughout. That’s crucial for Moore, since it’s tempting to overdo Palin’s twangy, consonant-droppin’ speech and wayward use of grammar – the very qualities Tina Fey exaggerated so luxuriously on Saturday Night Live, and which we see Palin/Moore reacting to, aghast, in front of her TV, in Game Change.
There’s no point in trying to argue that Game Change is a “fair” film: In ignoring the source book’s long sections on Hillary Clinton’s campaign in order to focus on Palin, and by re-creating many of the latter’s greatest gaffes – her inability in her Katie Couric interview to cite a single newspaper she’s read, for instance – we are obviously meant to snort and chuckle. (The movie does a wizardly job of editing actual footage of Couric and other interviewers so that they interact seamlessly with Moore’s Palin.)
But the movie treads exceedingly lightly on Palin’s personal life. She is shown to be a doting mother who hands off Trig only reluctantly to do political work, and Todd Palin is given a kind of false personality, a genial guy-verging-on-doofus-innocent, who’s just along for a baffling ride. Anyone who has seen Palin’s cable-TV reality show probably suspects a bit of a whitewash here: “Real” Todd, for example, came off as far more assertive in helping to control his wife’s image in both Sarah Palin’s Alaska and subsequent TV appearances.
In a way, Game Change is tougher on McCain than it is on Palin. Harris’ McCain begins the campaign commanding his staff to take the high road, but eventually caves to some of his advisers’ more craven tactics. He’s shown not relenting when they want to use Rev. Jeremiah Wright as a club to dent Obama’s image, but he does succumb here and says, “Okay, [Bill] Ayers is fair.” It was cynical relativism: Let’s avoid the danger of harping on a cleric’s rhetoric, but the movie says McCain signed off on castigating a former radical organizer of Vietnam protests. (Side note: Harris apparently opted not to try and replicate the way McCain holds his right arm, which was wounded and fractured during his time as a POW in North Vietnam. Other than that, it’s almost eerie how much, at some angles, Harris resembles McCain, as much through facial expressions and body language as through the makeup job.)
The back end of Game Change, in the spirit of maintaining its high degree of entertainment value – and believe me, this is one big, fun ride – goes all-in on Palin’s “going rogue” period. Moore makes Palin’s energy – her bristling outrage at being condescended to by McCain’s staff (Sarah Paulson, as Palin’s assigned media coach Nicolle Wallace, does WASP disapproval of Palin’s gaucheness with pursed-lipped perfection) – take on a sexy allure. It’s the difference between the many printed pages of a book and a compressed, two-hour TV-movie: Some details have to be glammed up and turbo-charged to keep an audience hooked on why Palin appealed to so many people during this campaign.
The television press is also treated to casual damnation, as when McCain, in the wake of Palin’s disastrous Couric interview, moans, “I thought Katie liked me!” – i.e., the implication being that there’s a long-standing practice of TV news stars going soft on politicos with whom they want to maintain long-standing, I’ll-scratch-your-back-you-give-me-an-exclusive-interview relationships.
Game Change tries to take one route of the high road, stressing a theme that applies to both sides of the aisle. (That’s the TV version of being evenhanded: You can’t fault Republicans without also faulting Democrats.) Schmidt is the one who articulates it, while talking about the ever-changing “48-hour news cycle”: “The news is no longer meant to be important,” he says. “It’s just entertainment.” He’s trying to calm fears that Palin’s flubs will doom McCain when he says that. And as we can see in the current election year, news-as-entertainment is, more than ever, the way politics can be rendered superficial, fleeting, by a media anxious to focus on whoever is the current, poll-winning “star.”
But lost along that high road are the roadkill – the principles that McCain wanted to stand for that were sabotaged by a staff consumed with winning, no matter what the long-term cost to McCain’s reputation might have been. In a way, the TV version of Game Change learned the worst lesson from The West Wing all too well: Keeping people talking and moving and it almost doesn’t matter what they’re saying – they’re fun to be around! No: At its best, The West Wing’s verbiage had some philosophical content for viewers to mull over, to agree or disagree with.
Game Change is lighter, breezier: It says Palin was only one element in a grand farce. Which is fun to watch, but after it’s over, depressing to contemplate for what that attitude, which the movie captures well, can do to the contemporary political process.
Will you be watching Game Change?