Game Change (2012) / Drama
MPAA rated: Not rated, but probably PG-13 for language and some adult themes
Running time: 118 min.
Cast: Woody Harrelson, Julianne Moore, Ed Harris, Peter MacNicol, Sarah Paulson, Jamey Sheridan, Ron Livingston, David Barry Gray, Bruce Altman
Director: Jay Roach
Screenplay: Danny Strong (based on the book by Mark Halperin and John Heileman)
Review published November 10, 2012
Based on the best-selling book by reporters and political commentators Mark Halperin and John Heileman, Game Change is a made-for-HBO docudrama relating the rise and fall of the 2008 Republican campaign for president for Arizona Senator John McCain (Harris, Man on a Ledge), particularly during and after the selection process that would see a relatively unknown Alaska governor named Sarah Palin (Moore, Blindness) thrust on an American public that would, at once, both embrace her feverishly or wretch with repulsion, depending on their own political views.
Most of the film is seen through the perspective of McCain political campaign strategist Steve Schmidt (Harrelson, Friends with Benefits), a conservative who believed in John McCain, but also could read the tea leaves of the celebrity status of the first legitimately viable African-American candidate for U.S. President, and how it would be a tough, perhaps impossible battle to thwart the Democrat's soaring rhetoric and media darling status. What the McCain campaign needed wasn't to play safe, as they would still likely come up short. What they needed was a spark of their own, their own celebrity to capture the attention of the public and make them rally to the Republican side. Hence, Sarah Palin -- a popular but largely blank canvas on which to paint the perfect picture for an America hungry for something more to believe in.
Schmidt's role in the movie serves more as the conscience of the McCain campaign, though McCain himself, as portrayed by Ed Harris, is shown to have an even deeper conscience, wanting to run a campaign his progeny would be proud of. Schmidt has a pained look in his eyes whenever dealing with Palin, as he looks as if he's witnessing a train wreck in the making, wondering and second-guessing just what he might have unleashed by not properly vetting her political depth before deeming her as the right pick. There are moments in which Schmidt does look on Palin with pride, particularly when Palin is able to follow the script she's been given before major interviews and the Vice Presidential debate with Senator Joe Biden. It isn't winning that he's proud of so much as she managed to get through it without a major blunder. Who cares if Biden wins the debate according to polls? -- Palin didn't out-and-out fail, so it is a victory of sorts.
Julianne Moore has the toughest task of the film, which is to play Sarah Palin as a three-dimensional figure without being a caricature, which would seem an impossible task given that Sarah Palin's public persona is almost wholly a caricature in the minds of many viewers. Moore comes off successfully enough, in that she does give the appearance of Palin, her inflections, and captures many of her mannerisms. However, at the same time, she appears to be too tight-clenched whenever she speaks, giving the impression that Palin is in some sort of physical or emotional pain just having to express herself, instead of the free-flowing, "she just says whatever's on her mind" style she's more known for. Harrelson doesn't look or behave like the real Steve Schmidt (other than sporting a bald head), but he's credible, while Ed Harris does look like McCain and models his mannerisms after the Senator, but doesn't try to alter his voice to mimic McCain's softer vocal tones.
The media, and Sarah Palin herself, have painted a picture of the former governor as a babbling dunce who regurgitates conservative catchphrases ("Real America", etc.) repeatedly as part of her way to pull the naturally patriotic heartstrings of a certain segment (WASPs, basically) of the American public. But conservatives regularly rally around her as someone who represents them -- a mother, a wife, a fighter, and a victim of a biased media who had daggers out for her from the start. Game Change gives a little of both, mostly confirming the notion that Palin was far from ready for the public spotlight as a Vice Presidential candidate, but she is also sympathetic in that she was willing to try without crumbling, despite the odds, the ridicule, and the perpetual pressure she would feel from every side. But it is mostly in her personal life that Palin is seen as relatable, as a loving mother and loyal companion to her encouraging husband, Todd. Needless to say, many of these scenes represent the most conjecture on the part of the filmmakers, as no one knows except Todd (Gray, Lawn Dogs) and Sarah Palin just what they said to each other as they lay in bed watching the news.
Game Change is a fascinating look at the behind-the-scenes machinations of a political campaign, and just how much of a pressure-cooker environment it can be for campaign managers, as well as for the candidates. In particular, it does fill in some blanks that many were wondering behind the 'going rogue' persona of Palin, as she began to feel more and more lost wearing clothes she'd never wear, saying things to the public she'd never say, and following orders from people who seem just as clueless as to how to handle each major political event than she ever had been when rising to the top of the Alaskan political world with a country-leading 80% approval rating from her constituents.
If there's one thing that is omitted from Game Change, it's that the Republicans actually took the lead in the polls in in early to mid-September following their convention, especially spurred on by Palin's speech, which excited the base and many independents. While some of that fever would dissipate due to finding out more how little Palin was ready for being the successor to what would be the oldest president running for office in a first term, there were also external circumstances that resulted in the defeat of McCain/Palin other than the controversial VP pick's lack of grasp on important political issues. The biggest of these circumstances, the economy going into a free-fall, is not even mentioned as being a factor, whereby the Democrats would use John McCain's own words -- "the fundamentals of the economy are strong" - to show how out of touch he was with where the country had been heading.
There really isn't a conclusion that Game Change draws other than to let the audience draw its own conclusions. The conclusion that I drew from it is that politics is so driven by a need to win that sometimes strange chances are taken. Those chances might fuel the media interest and the coverage, but they also mean that the country might go down a dark and treacherous road if those who seek power are empty vessels in which such things as suggesting the opposition is a terrorist sympathizer or a socialist, especially as it sows the seeds of hatred that was largely lying dormant in the pockets of America in which bigotry and fear ran rampant.
Palin has since left public service, resigning from her first and only term as Alaska's governor to become a political pundit, mostly for Fox News. Knowing that her political career isn't viable on a large scale except in conservative circles, she stirs the political pot in a far more effective way than she ever could as a VP, or as a governor of a sparsely populated state. She has become a darling diva on the right, where she can garner all the adulation without the consequences of a media to expose her weaknesses.
If you haven't seen the movie, you'll likely see Palin as worthy of admiration or worthy of ridicule. After seeing Game Change, or reading the book, it would be hard to not see her through both sides of the prism.
©2012 Vince Leo