The debate about fair vs one-sided portraits aside — the narrative of which has dominated the political conversation side of things so far — "Game Change," Jay Roach's HBO film about Sarah Palin's effect on the 2008 Republican campaign to elect John McCain, is, by and large, an absorbing and entertaining docu-drama-like account of this period in election history. It's also perhaps one of the most effective political cautionary tales to date, an evidential A-Z portrait of what not to do when trying to pick a running mate.
Based on the well-researched book of the same name by journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, “Game Change” centers, at least initially, on Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson), an American campaign strategist and public relations worker for the U.S. Republican Party, who had hoped to sit out the 2008 election to spend more time with his wife. That all changes when Barack Obama’s 'Hope' campaign sweeps the country in 2008, transforming him into a near-celebrity and forcing John McCain to fall back deeply in the polls. McCain himself (played by Ed Harris), calls up Schmidt and pleads with him to join as his campaign manager. He wants him to be the strategist who will help send a clear and definitive message to the American people as to why McCain is the real wise choice for Americans and not the popular but untested and inexperienced Obama.
But weeks into their campaign, and still trailing sorely behind, Schmidt comes to the conclusion they need a “game changer,” something to shake things up — a radical move — otherwise they are dead in the water, even months out. While McCain favors Joe Lieberman for his running mate, a former Democratic Party member and the party's nominee for Vice President who endorsed McCain for president because of his stance on the War on Terror, this contradictory break from party maneuver is seen by many as a weak flip flop that will only hurt the campaign.
Eventually, Schmidt, McCain and his advisors (played by Jamey Sheridan, Bruce Altman and Peter MacNicol) settle on Sarah Palin (richly portrayed by Julianne Moore), because she’s a female, but also because she’s a mother of five, pro-life, recently gave birth to a son with down’s syndrome and perhaps more importantly has a 80% approval rating in Alaska, the highest in the country at the time.
Yet, with time being of the essence, mistakes are made early on, first and foremost the vetting of Palin which is woefully rushed and painfully lax and lenient. It’s only after she’s announced as his running-mate (under a veil of deep cover and secrecy) that Schmidt, McCain and the campaign realize how under-informed Palin is on various subjects including, but not limited to, foreign policy. In trying to become the vice-presidential running mate the campaign desires, the petulant Palin falters at every turn, soon turning grumpy, difficult, rebellious and frustrated with their efforts to educate and rehabilitate her in their image.
But with the chips down and Palin’s impending vice presidential debate against Joe Biden on the horizon (for which she is distressingly underprepared, much to her own fault), senior advisors Mark and Nicole Wallace (Ron Livingston and Sarah Paulson) — the latter of whom eventually quietly quits (or at least refuses to spend any face time with Palin) — decide that Palin is simply at her best when she’s herself. Her family is flown in from Alaska to lift her spirits, a new tactic that allows Palin to play to deflect and stick to her strengths is chosen and her people skills, charisma and good nature essentially win the debate. At least in the eyes of the Republican party and the campaign, which briefly puts her back in their good graces.
Yet as her popularity soars with the middle of the country so too does her ego and by the end of the campaign, McCain and the entire staff are exhausted and fed up with her bi-polar approach. She's either disinterested and disengaged (often distracted by Alaskan state issues that shouldn’t be of concern on this national stage) and thus gets pouty and acts out, or she's far too gung-ho (like when she offers to give a vice presidential defeat speech, something that’s never been done and quickly gets shut down). But Palin’s difficult, non-team player personality aside (she's a "maverick," dontcha know?), it’s clear by the end of the film that she has struck a chord with the American people and her transformation into national phenomenon has just begun.
While Harrelson and Harris are rock-steady supporting players in this picture, there’s no doubt that this is Julianne Moore’s show and she takes it, capturing the Palin persona with nuance and subtlety in a rich and textured performance. A divisive figure to be sure, Moore does an outstanding job of humanizing Palin, leaving the audience almost no choice but to sympathize with this contradictory and complicated woman. Known for his "Austin Powers" films, director Jay Roach delivers his most mature work, obviously at the very opposite spectrum of his multi-million-dollar-grossing comedies (which include the "Meet the Parents" franchise and "Dinner For Schmucks"). Wisely, he takes a mostly invisible approach, letting the actors do the heavy lifting while deftly weaving this absorbing and ever-watchable narrative.
Tea Partiers and Palin supporters ready to dismiss this film may want to take note: even Steven Schmidt himself feels the film to be a rather accurate portrait of what happened in 2008. "Ten weeks of the campaign are condensed into a two-hour movie. But it tells the truth of the campaign. That is the story of what happened,” he said, noting that watching the picture was tantamount to "an out-of-body experience.”
It’s obviously easy to reduce Sarah Palin, the former governor of Alaska and a lightning rod figure for Republican Tea Party rhetoric, to a simpleton. She was a figure of ridicule for the liberal media during the 2008 election (see Tina Fey’s brilliantly scathing caricature of her on SNL), but her down-to-earth persona connected with millions of disenfranchised Americans and also helped galvanize McCain’s lagging-behind 2008 presidential campaign in the year when Obama briefly gave Americans a flicker of hope for positive change. And with 2 million copies of “Going Rogue” sold, Palin obviously continues to connect with various parts of the country.
So the temptation to characterize the politician as a buffoon is likely there, but Roach’s “Game Change” is a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of the then-Govenor of Alaska, depicting her as a naive woman in over her head and ill-equipped for the scrutiny of national politics, but a personable, charismatic figure who can connect with thousands by just being herself. [B]