“No news story lasts more than 48 hours anymore. News is not meant to be remembered. It’s entertainment.” – Steve Schmidt in “Game Change”
“Game Change,” the highly-anticipated HBO movie that premiered last Saturday, is driven by an outstanding performance by Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin, who, of course, needs no introduction. By now, you have either heard more about her than you ever would want to or you can’t get enough of her. In other words, there has not been a more polarizing American political figure in our lifetime.
Although the film has garnered significant attention, Moore’s portrayal of Palin has been oddly ignored in most reviews, and after watching “Game Change,” I understand why. Her performance is difficult to absorb simply because most of us already have such a firm idea of how we feel about Sarah Palin. She has been so publicly taken to task by some and defended so fiercely by others that we have been forced to pick sides. Now, with “Game Change,” her fans on the right will complain that the filmmakers vilify her by making her look petty and ignorant. Her critics on the left will feel that Palin is portrayed too sympathetically as a naïve small-town mother, corrupted by celebrity and in over her head. The truth is that Moore’s performance is – pardon the expression – a fair and balanced one, but I can’t think of a more difficult acting job. Her task is to make all of us, who have put Palin into the smallest of boxes in our minds, see her in a new way, a mighty challenge to which the accomplished actress rises.
Of course, Palin is not the lead character in “Game Change.” That dubious honor falls to Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson), the McCain campaign strategist who recommended Palin as the vice-presidential nominee. The opening scenes show Schmidt debating the VP choices with McCain and other strategists. McCain wants to pick his buddy, Independent Senator Joe Lieberman (played by Austin Pendleton because…well, why not?). Schmidt and the other strategists point out that picking a Jewish, pro-choice Democrat would not exactly light up the GOP base. When McCain counters that picking Lieberman would enhance his “maverick” credentials and be an example of truly putting “country first,” Palin is presented as the poll-tested alternative. She would excite the base, distance McCain from the Bush administration, and, most importantly, close the gender gap. Only one question remains: does anyone know anything about her?
Enter Palin, seen ambling through the Alaskan State Fair at sundown, baby Trig in her arms, commiserating about gas prices with a local. The campaign sees her as a dream candidate, and the filmmakers play along. Her first speech goes perfectly, and the American people fall in love with her. We are even treated to a “Pretty Woman”-style montage of Palin trying on her new campaign clothes.
In those first forty-five minutes, “Game Change” is a hard movie to dislike, as it offers dramatizations of all the fun behind-the-scenes stuff we have speculated about. We see Palin win over Schmidt during her first informal vetting. We see the look in Schmidt’s eyes when he realizes the depth of her ignorance on policy. We see the tantrum she throws after the disastrous Katie Couric interview that lives in infamy. These scenes are crucial to the success of the film. I was reminded of the baseball movie, “Bull Durham,” whose writer-director Ron Shelton has played some minor league ball himself. In interviews, he said that the best thing a sports movie can do is show you the moments you don’t get to see when you watch a game on TV. So he showed us what the catcher and the hitter talk about between pitches, what is said during those conferences at the mound, and what the manager and pitching coach talk about in the dugout.
So as a sports movie, I guess “Game Change” is a success. Those scenes are good, gossipy fun, but the filmmakers have something bigger in mind. “Game Change” was directed by Jay Roach and written by Danny Strong, the creative team behind 2008’s “Recount,” a funny, compelling portrayal of the 2000 Presidential election recount in Florida (although it receives major demerits from me for reducing field genius Michael Whouley’s job to shouting, “I need more phones and white boards!”) Here, Roach and Strong win the audience over with the unbearable lightness of the first act, but when Palin gets fed up with her handlers and decides to “go rogue,” the musical cues and the deep looks of concern on Harrelson’s face signify that there is something more at stake here than the result of a presidential election we already know the outcome of.
Here’s what happens: as Palin unravels and McCain’s poll numbers drop, McCain decides to go negative on Obama and allows Palin and, presumably, his other surrogates to publicly tie Obama to “domestic terrorist” Bill Ayers. In the following scenes, we see McCain confronted with angry voters on the campaign trail, interrupting his speeches with cries of “Obama’s a Muslim” and “He’s a socialist!” The voters depicted here are clearly meant to be forerunners of the Tea Party electorate, which would emerge shortly after Obama’s election. The implication is that, after being forced to go negative due to the utter failure of Palin as a candidate, the McCain campaign created the Tea Party and all of its animosity towards Obama.
It’s a neat way to give the movie more teeth, but it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Putting aside the fact that there is a sizable portion of the population who would never have trusted Obama regardless of what McCain and Palin said, we must not forget that it was the Jeremiah Wright story that first fanned the flames of racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia that still follow Obama to this day. The Wright story came out not during the general election but during the primary, and conventional wisdom tells us that it was Hillary Clinton’s camp that leaked the story. So if the filmmakers aim to pinpoint an event or moment that inflamed anti-Obama sentiment, they need to cast a wider net.
The filmmakers’ efforts to give more weight to the third act stem from a script that never properly creates any dramatic tension. Part of the problem is that we already know the ending, but other movies have been able to overcome that one (a certain famous iceberg springs to mind). But the real issue is that, much like the 24-hour media cycle that is decried by Schmidt in the film, “Game Change” is a script full of sound bytes, and time is never taken to develop the characters. Harrelson’s campaign strategist is there only to guide our feelings toward Palin, and he spends most of the film frowning in disapproval or opening his eyes wide in disbelief, although he gets a miraculous moment towards the end when his emotions finally boil over. Ed Harris gives a strong performance as McCain, but the effort to make him physically resemble the Arizona senator is distracting.
But throughout it all, Moore’s Palin makes the movie worth watching. The Sarah Palin of “Game Change” is an average American thrust into a position of celebrity, the pressure from which makes her erratic. She is tender, conniving, charismatic, and bitter all in the same space. We never gain any real insight into what is underneath at all, but Moore’s performance elevates the character all the same. She embodies every conflicting character trait, while simultaneously making us wonder which is real and which is an act.
It’s a performance that recalls characters like Charles Foster Kane or Mark Zuckerberg, who you can spend two hours of film getting to know but in the end remain hidden. In fact, Kane and Zuckerberg are apt comparisons to Palin in the context of the film. The characters all represent the future, which in Palin’s case remains as dark and mysterious as a coming storm.