Director Jay Roach and screenwriter Danny Strong have taken a small slice of the wide-ranging book about the 2008 election by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann and made a film that is both, at times, contentious and empathetic and treats its characters with a surprisingly sympathetic touch. Politics is an ugly game and Game Change is about how that ugliness affects everything it touches from the people who set out to do good or with at least some ideals and how that destroys everything decent around it. While there has been controversy surrounding how the film cuts out the ugliness of the Democratic primaries and other salacious details on that side of the election and almost wholly concentrates on the ascent of vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin, the film on its own seems surprisingly fair despite the obvious liberal leanings of the filmmakers.
In fact, this film’s entire goal and endgame seems to be, seeing the other side of the equation. This is as close to a hagiography we will ever get by a liberal filmmaker on the subject of Sarah Palin. During much of the film, she is, if not likable, wholly sympathetic at the least. Julianne Moore embodies every facet of Palin and never goes in for parody. Everything about is her complete and totally sincere. Much of the worst parts of Palin – her lack of knowledge on foreign policy, her private life, her conflicts with John McCain’s advisers – are matters of public record and are depicted, warts and all, but the film uncovers the deeper character motives of Palin and who she really is and how she is transformed through her experiences on the campaign. Despite what her critics might say, Palin is merely a deeply concerned mother thrust into a national spotlight she wasn’t ready for and, once it was on her, she refused to give up.
Roach’s film really has two great arcs that form the spine of the movie and Moore’s Palin really serves to humanize a public figure that is often so easily demonized by her detractors, taking her from little known governor of Alaska to the star of the Republican party. However, I found myself completely engrossed and drawn in by Woody Harrelson’s wonderful performance as Steve Schmidt, McCain’s senior campaign strategist, the second great arc of the piece. Harrelson imbues Schmidt with a brash bravado towards the beginning of the film that is slowly chipped away as Palin becomes an ever more dominating force in the campaign. Schmidt is the one who puts her on the ticket and that decision haunts every frame of the film as his regret only grows throughout the film.
He chose someone who he wasn’t completely sure was ready for such high office because his only thought at that moment was winning the election. That is the crux of the film’s themes in regards to putting such a contentious election under a microscope. Rather than being an incisive, stinging probe of Sarah Palin, the film is a critique of modern politics and campaigning. The way the system has been set up with the continuing proliferation of information in the digital age and the constant 24 hour news cycle, our elections are no longer designed to choose leaders. They have become high school popularity contests writ large, with popularity and celebrity overriding substance and intelligence. The Republican characters constantly deride Barack Obama for being a popular celebrity with no substance. In their plight to fight back, they find a celebrity of their own and the characters slowly realize that they have chosen their own “Obama” in a sense. This disillusionment is compellingly represented in the character of Nicolle Wallace (wonderfully played by Sarah Paulson), another adviser to the McCain campaign, who in the end admits she could not vote for McCain knowing what she knows of Palin.
There is nothing truly political about the film, on its face. On issues of policy and governance, all the characters are conservative Republicans and Ed Harris’ John McCain is appropriately gruff and straight forward, embodying the Senator’s temperament with great ease. However, supporters of Palin would probably best skip this film as though it humanizes her and makes her sympathetic to her detractors, it does wallow in the actions and behavior that her critics have already cited time and time again and whether fact or fiction, her supporters probably wouldn’t want to hear it again, especially as the film seems to come at the idea that she is a kind of Frankenstein’s monster that Harrelson’s Schmidt and company unleash upon, not just the Republican party, but upon the country. However, if you’re able to look past that characterization and look at the arc that Roach and Strong have designed of Palin, the film is more about the crushing gears of our current political system and its contentious, demeaning relationship with the media. Game Change is a remarkable study of modern-day electioneering that is never so much about politics but what politics does to the human condition.
- HBO defends Palin portrayal in “Game Change” (cbsnews.com)
- Katie Couric and Sarah Palin’s morning showdown is nearly upon us: Who will YOU watch? – POLL (popwatch.ew.com)
- HBO’s Game Change: Sarah, Plain and Dull (tv.com)
- WATCH: CNN Host Grills Filmmakers Over ‘Game Change’ (huffingtonpost.com)
- First look at Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin (cbsnews.com)
- Steve Schmidt: Palin as President ‘Frightens Me’ (newser.com)
- Geoffrey Dunn: Game Change You Can Believe In? You Betcha! (huffingtonpost.com)
- Steve Schmidt: Palin as President ‘Frightens Me’ – Former McCain strategist calls ‘Game Change’ ‘very accurate’ (tribuneofthepeople.com)