We had to wait till the beginning of 2010 to get the dirt.
When Game Change by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin came out everyone was buzzing about the behind-the-scenes gossip from one of the most historical presidential elections this country has ever experienced. No matter who won, it was going to be historic: we would either have the first African-American president or the first female Vice-President. It was epic.
Of course no one came out of it smelling like a rose. The book covered Hilary’s vilification by the press, John Edwards’ amazing ability to self-destruct, and most enticingly, the mess that was the McCain/Palin campaign. The cracks in the rockstar that was Sarah Palin were put out there for the public and it was inevitable that someone would make a movie out of it.
And of course, the good folks at HBO were just the ones to do it.
Based on the book and adapted by Danny Strong, who had also written HBO’s Recount (he also played Paris’ boyfriend on Gilmore Girls, for those GG lovers out there. Go Doyle!), this Game Change focuses primarily on the McCain campaign, with a spotlight on the days before and after Senator McCain tapped an unknown governor to be his VP running mate.
While John McCain was the presidential candidate, and while Ed Harris is remarkable as McCain, the story belongs to Julianne Moore as Palin and Woody Harrelson as Steve Schmidt, the guy brought in to run McCain’s campaign after a shakeup and the one who was heavily instrumental in McCain choosing Palin.
On the heels of a comeback in the primaries and heading into the Republican Convention, McCain seemed dead set on choosing Joe Lieberman to be his VP. While he insisted this is what a maverick would do and that is was a choice that would help unite the country after 8 years of the Bush administration doing everything they could to divide it, McCain’s staff thought this was a terrible idea. Lieberman while intellectually a great choice, wouldn’t excite the base and would in fact alienate many, especially those who were pro-life or were women.
That is where Palin came in. She was a Conservative, she was pro-life, she was the mother of five…and she was attractive. According to Game Change, McCain’s team were so intent on Palin working out, they rushed the vetting process – 5 days vs the 6-8 weeks the other VP possibles had been vetted. And therein lay the problem.
Over the course of the film, we see Palin’s rise to almost demagogic heights. She was the Republican answer to Obama’s star power. She was galvanizing crowds around the country in a way that hadn’t been seen in years. Julianne Moore plays Palin’s unwavering certainty in her own abilities to a T. Not once does Palin pause when asked if she could take on this huge responsibility and change her life and the life of her family in an instant. For a person who had only been governor for 18 months, this was an astounding feat of hubris.
Then the interviews and questions started and as she rose spectacularly, so too did she fall spectacularly.
You see these events unfold through the eyes of Woody Harrelson’s Steve Schmidt, who slowly realizes what he has done. Sarah Paulson plays Nicolle Wallace senior political adviser to the campaign, is the first to realize Palin’s lack of general knowledge.
It’s not just that she doesn’t understand the complex economic situation in Russia…she thinks the Queen is the head of the British government…she doesn’t understand why North Korea and South Korea aren’t the same country…she thinks the Fed is the Federal government, not the Federal Reserve. Wallace rings the alarm but Schmidt is so committed to Palin being the silver bullet to the Obama campaign, he ignores the warnings. In the end, Wallace sobs when she tells Schmidt that because of Palin, she just couldn’t bring herself to vote for McCain. Her continued focus on her ratings in Alaska rather than preparing to be grilled by the press, just serve to undercut her readiness for being a heartbeat away from the presidency.
For his own part, you see Harris’ McCain make concession after concession where Palin is concerned and when he worries about his legacy, we have the hindsight to see the tragedy.
I never thought that anything could make me feel sympathetic towards Sarah Palin. It is a remarkable feat that Game Change manages to do so, at least for a while. She is portrayed as a loving mother who really cares for her children and didn’t seem to grasp what her run would do to her family. As Palin crumbles during her now infamous interview with Katie Couric and then watches it replayed for laughs by Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live, Moore makes Palin seem intensely human. And when Palin rebounds with the VP debate, Moore capture’s Palin’s zealotry and ambition. Moore’s Palin is never scarier than when she is convinced she is right in all things or when, on election night, she tries to maneuver it so she makes her own concession speech.
This is an incredible film that tries very hard and mostly succeeds at not coming off as a smear campaign. Yes, some of those moments we all remember too well are played for laughs, but everyone is pretty given their fair due. Technically it is brilliant as it superimposes the actors into film from 2008, and with the clothes and the hair and the attitude, we lose sight of Julianne Moore and truly see only Sarah Palin. An accomplishment for the tech team and Moore both.