Game Change premiered last night on HBO. The movie followed John McCain‘s campaign for president in 2008, primarily from the point of view of his running mate Sarah Palin. It is based on the book Game Change: Obama and The Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Races of a Lifetime, by journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. While there will surely be plenty of debate as to the veracity of the account, this review will focus primarily on the technical aspects: writing, directly, acting, etc.
The film stars Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson, and Ed Harris as Sarah Palin, Steve Schmidt, and John McCain respectively. We start with a montage of McCain winning the 2008 GOP Primary. Following that come from behind victory, McCain finds himself trailing in the polls against then Illinois Senator Barack Obama. Most concerning to McCain’s advisers is his standing among women. Polls show him down twenty points in this key demographic. McCain wants to tap Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman as his running mate. Advisers warn, however, that Lieberman, a former Democrat and one-time running mate of Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore, would upset the GOP’s conservative base. They advise that the only way to shore up the base, and gain support among women, is to choose a conservative woman. To which, John McCain response “find me a woman.”
After eliminating several of the GOP’s highest ranking women, for being too liberal, McCain’s chief adviser, Steve Schmidt, zeros in on Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. Palin, a virtual political unknown, brings in the hard line conservative credentials McCain lacks. In order to have her ready for the announcement in time for the Republican National Convention, McCain’s staff has a mere five days to vet and prepare her. They soon discover that the abbreviated vetting process has left them with a lot of surprises.
The story of Palin’s rise and fall, and subsequent resurgence, has been hashed and rehashed several times. Following the publishing of Halperin and Heilemann’s book, the key details contained therein were revealed and picked apart by the press for weeks. As such, the events we see unfolding in the movie are not surprising. There are no shocking revelations, or new twists. The story plays out exactly as those of us, who were paying attention at the time, remember. Despite this, it still manages to be interesting.
Throughout most of the film, Julianne Moore’s portrayal of Palin is spot on. She captures not only her voice, but her facial ticks and mannerisms. At times the performance does seem to split into parody, and on a few occasions she seems to be doing an impersonation of Tina Fey doing an impersonation of Sarah Palin. This tends to get in the way of the acting. Overall, however, her performance is strong, and worthy of the praise she has received.
Ed Harris’s John McCain provides an interesting paradox. Unlike Moore as Palin, he doesn’t really embody McCain. He especially lacks McCain’s stiffness. McCain, a former POW, has only partial mobility of his arms. It’s a feature that should be easy to portray, and yet Harris seems to have overlooked it completely. Despire this, Harris’s acting is superb. It leads to an interesting result. After some time, it allows us to let go of McCain the candidate, and just enjoy McCain the character.
Woody Harrelson probably has both the easiest and most difficult tasks. Steve Schmidt, while surely well known among political nerds, isn’t a public figure. Our minds haven’t been saturated with his image. This allows Harrelson a lot of freedom in how he plays him. At the same time, Harrelson is up against acting powerhouses playing huge, dynamic public figures. It would be easy for his performance to be eclipsed by these two, and yet it doesn’t. His nuanced portrayal allows us to understand and empathize with Schmidt, no matter how we feel about the decisions he made.
The media also has a role in the film. Real events and news stories are interspersed with the live action film. At times, this becomes distracting. The most egregious offense comes during Palin’s interview with Katie Couric. Moore appears to have been superimposed into the actual interview footage. In order to completely cover the real Sarah Palin, Moore’s profile is huge. The transition from the actual footage of Couric, to the superimposed image of Moore, is very jarring, and almost comical. It gets worse later, when Couric is portrayed, from behind, by a stand-in in a not-ready-for-HD blonde wig. The wig is so shiny and synthetic looking that the whole thing comes off as a bad comedy sketch. This is all somewhat ironic, as one of the project’s producers is Tom Hanks. Hanks was famously, and seamlessly, integrated into old news footage for the movie Forrest Gump.
Screenwriter Danny Strong, who also write Recount, the TV Movie about the 2000 Presidential election debacle in Florida, was tasked with an enormous challenge. Boiling down months of campaigning into two hours is not easy, and he didn’t entirely succeed. While there are many exciting and emotional moments throughout the screenplay, the first part drags a bit. Too much time was wasted on the “she doesn’t know anything” aspect of the story. Palin’s ignorance, while entertaining, and ripe for ridicule, was not what ultimately brought her down. It was a string of misstatements and outright lies, and the way she tossed them out without a second of hesitation. By the end of the campaign, Palin’s lying became pathological. This part of the story is barely touched on, in a two-minute conversation between Palin and Schmidt, during which she sticks her tongue out at him like a petulant teenager, figuratively, at least. Meanwhile, the preparation, or lack there of, for her news interviews and the vice presidential debate monopolize the majority of the production.
Perhaps the most troubling thing about the film is that it was a two-hour film at all. Halperin and Heielmann’s book is not about Sarah Palin. It’s an epic story that gives us sweeping insight into the entire 2007/2008 Presidential campaign cycle. The advantage of HBO having the rights to the book is that it is HBO. It’s a cable television network, not subject to the confines of a theatrical release. So many amazing things happened during the 2008 Presidential election, and most of them had nothing to do with Sarah Palin. The choice to focus this entire thing on her was just… wrong. At the end of the film, the theme is reiterated, she wasn’t ready. Not to lead, not to even run. Yet, what becomes clear, is that the process has create a star, or a monster, depending on your view. The fact that this film focused on Palin just proves its own point.
The film is well-acted. It is engaging. And, it is definitely worth watching. While it doesn’t tell us anything new, there is something voyeuristic and enjoyable about watching it all unfold. Certain aspects could have been handled better, but, for what it is, it is an excellent film.