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 John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate in the 2008 presidential campaign. While Palin herself has said that watching this HBO production is a waste of time, she need not fear further erosion of her reputation. She is impersonated here with a high degree of accuracy by no less than Julianne Moore, who portrays her as a devoted mother and a plucky campaigner.
No, it’s the staff surrounding McCain and Palin that is more 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. 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/complement to McCain (embodied with often breathtaking accuracy by Ed Harris). No matter that she had no idea why, for example, North and South Korea were two separate countries.
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. 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 meticulously on Saturday Night Live, a performance we see Palin/Moore watch, aghast, 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 concentrate on McCain and Palin, and by re-creating many of the latter’s greatest gaffes — her inability to cite a single newspaper she’s read in her Katie Couric interview, for instance — it obviously means for us 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 Game Change does stress a theme that applies to both sides of the aisle. Schmidt is the one who articulates it, while talking about the ever-changing “48-hour news cycle”: Trying to calm fears that Palin’s flubs will hurt McCain, he asserts, “The news is no longer meant to be important. It’s just entertainment.” And as we can see in the current election year, news-as-entertainment more than ever renders political issues superficial, with a media corps anxious to focus on whoever is the current poll-winning “star.” A-