Sarah Palin can whine all she wants, but no reasonable person believes that the creators of Game Change went out of their way to make her look shallow and ridiculous – she didn’t need any help with that. But the HBO film will certainly play better to people who see Palin as a blight on politics. This behind-the-scenes dramatization of her abrupt choice and disastrous campaign as John McCain’s running mate is a fast, smart and totally enjoyable tragi-comedy. Julianne Moore is an impressive Palin clone, right down to her confident walk and wave. But Game Change is also a cynical (if all too obvious) cautionary tale about the bubble-headed way elections work today. Palin just happens to be the best example we have.
The film’s point is contained in a pithy line from McCain advisor Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson, who makes him fierce and tightly wound). The night before the election, McCain staffers gather in a hotel bar, and campaign manager Rick Davis (Peter MacNichol) complains that only “movie-star charisma” can win a presidential election today, that Obama and Palin are both stars. Schmidt answers: “Primary difference being Sarah Palin can’t name a Supreme Court case whereas Barack Obama was a constitutional law professor.” Isn’t that the bitter truth? And since fame isn’t going to stop driving politics, we better start seeing the difference between celebrities and smart celebrities.
Schmidt, now recognizable as an MSNBC commentator, is the closest thing the film has to a hero because, while he encouraged the choice of Palin, he quickly came to see that it was an irresponsible blunder in every way: she helps them lose the election instead of win, she would have been a horror in office. Ed Harris plays a thoughtful McCain, who lets his ambition overtake his judgment, but he’s almost incidental. Game Change takes off from the premise that campaign consultants run the show. (We’ve known that since The War Room, D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus’ great documentary about Clinton’s 1992 campaign, a film that turned James Carville and George Stephanopoulos into stars.)
McCain’s advisers spell out the reality: he can’t beat Obama without women voters, can’t win without shaking things up. There is an especially amusing scene of Davis getting bleary-eyed as he Googles, searching for Republican women who might run: one was too pro-choice, several were too dull, but Palin seemed just right. Too bad neither the strategists nor the people assigned to vet her bothered to quiz her about, say, the difference between North and South Korea.
Director Jay Roach (Meet the Fockers) and screenwriter Danny Strong worked together on the HBO political film Recount, and are expert at offering fresh views of situations we think we know. (The film is based on Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s exhaustively reported book.) We’ve seen Palin’s instant-classic bad interview with Katie Couric. Here we see how she simply refused to prepare for it, and see Nicole Wallace (Sarah Paulson) who was in charge of trying, tell Schmidt afterwards that she would quit the campaign if he didn’t take her off Palin duty.
There are some unfamiliar scenes, including Palin’s starvation diet and her weird (and frankly hard to believe) focus on how she’s being treated by the press in Alaska. If there’s one thing we know about Palin it’s that her ambitions soared out of there the minute the McCain campaign chose her. What does seem totally in line with the Palin we’ve come to know: she never listens.
In one head-spinning moment, Moore as Palin watches Tina Fey as Palin on SNL, reminding us that you don’t have to veer far from the real Sarah Palin – either in words, voice or gesture – to make her a caricature. Moore keeps her on the realistic side of the line. But what she and Game Change offer more powerfully is a view of the inner Palin, or rather the lack of an inner Palin.
One reason Obama’s “Hope” mantra registered is that it gave us the kind of intangible yet solid ideal that campaigns so often reduce to strategy in the horse race. “Hope” was also smart politics, but like Obama with his combination of star power and intelligence, the best politicians need both. Game Change reminds us what happens when the campaign is all about the starry glitz. And, as Palin’s run for vice-president demonstrated, sometimes voters see right through the glitter to the raw ambition and clueless brain inside.
And don’t miss this: Andy Samberg’s more frivolous but very funny Palin impersonation on Saturday Night Live.