A film review by Craig J. Koban March 14, 2012
2012, no MPAA rating, 118
2012, no MPAA rating, 118 mins.
Sarah Palin: Julianne Moore / Steve Schmidt: Woody Harrelson / John McCain: Ed Harris / Nicolle Wallace: Sarah Paulson / Sen. Joe Lieberman: Austin PendletonDirected by Jay Roach / Teleplay by Danny Strong
The new HBO telefilm GAME CHANGE highlights the Sarah Palin that we are all abundantly familiar with, which I guess is the source of one of its nagging faults.
does not delve too deeply or compellingly into the life of the former
Alaskan Governor who – virtually overnight – went from a political
unknown in 2008 and became one of the most well-known and
controversial vice-presidential hopefuls in recent American political
history. When John McCain’s
presidential campaign against Barack Obama was beginning to freefall, his
advisors pleaded that he needed to make a desperate Hail Mary play, of
sorts, to change the Republican nominee’s chances.
McCain, in short, needed a “game changer”…and he sure as hell
got one in Palin.
though GAME CHANGE deals with widely familiar subject matter, there is no
doubt that the film’s handling of said familiar material is
proficient. It boasts solid direction from Jay Roach (who made one of the best HBO films in
recent years in RECOUNT, another
presidential campaign themed fact-based story) adapting
John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s political
expose of the 2008 election GAME CHANGE: OBAMA AND THE CLINTONS, McCAIN
AND PALIN, AND THE RACE OF A LIFETIME, which in turn was based on
interviews of more than 300 people that were closely tied to the election
in one form or another. GAME
CHANGE also greatly benefits from a stalwart cast of high pedigree-Oscar
nominated actors at the top of their form.
film details the rise and fall of the Republican Party during the
aforementioned presidential campaign and how McCain came to meet and
eventually choose Palin to serve as his running mate. McCain (played by a solid and dependable Ed Harris) seems
certain during the latter stages of the campaign that popular favor is
leaning towards Obama, who has risen to the level of an iconic superstar
to the masses. One of
McCain’s highest ranking campaign advisors, Steve Schmidt (a resolute
and empowered Woody
Harrelson) understands his boss’ frustrations, seeing as they both
can’t seem to understand why a genuine war hero like McCain is losing
solid ground to what they see as an inexperienced “celebrity” figure
Schmidt realized that what McCain’s campaign needed was its own
star power that could command the same sort of zealot-like following as
their Democratic opponent.
options for a vice-presidential candidate were not strong.
McCain wanted the centrist independent from Connecticut, Joe Lieberman, but
his lack of popular appeal and charisma were obvious stumbling blocks.
Realizing that time was not on their side and that drastic measures
needed to be taken, McCain and Schmidt decided that they needed someone
who could achieve Obama-level status with Republican voters…and that
they needed an unknown woman to fill that role.
It simply did not matter whether or not she was a competent and
experienced political figurehead; what did matter was whether or not she
had screen and podium presence to turn the tide of the election.
(Julianne Moore) certainly did not have the career that would ensure her
as an easy lock-in for the vice-presidency of the most powerful free
country in the world. Before
she was picked by Schmidt and McCain she was a barely known Alaskan
Governor for under two years and, before that, was a mayor of an Alaskan
town of under 10000 people. But
those details seemed irrelevant to McCain and company at the time, which is arguably
why the vice-presidential vetting process to legally get Palin on the ticket
lasted only a few days, whereas in the past the highly scrutinizing
process could take months. All
that initially concerned McCain was that she had a magnetic
personality that would strike an instant cord with voters, and, to be
fair, Palin possessed such attributes; she had a no-nonsense sass, a poise
and beauty, and a forthright demeanor that was easy to like.
as the campaign progressed, Palin would infamously become an encumbering
headache for all involved. As
Election Day loomed on the horizon it became clear that the brief vetting
process overlooked many of her most glaring and damaging faults. She had
virtually no sense of geopolitical history (she did not apparently know
that there were two Koreas, nor was she clear about what Queen Elizabeth
actually did or that the Great Britain had a Prime Minister) and lacked even a modest knowledge of current events (she seemed,
for instance, completely incapable of citing one newspaper that she had read during her disastrous Katie Couric interview).
Her private life became the daily target of late night talk show
hosts. Within no time, McCain
and Schmidt began to see that no amount of Reagan-esque chutzpah could hide
Palin’s faults as a would-be leader. Her growing ego as well with her newfound popularity made her
grow increasingly despondent with her political advisors; she started
rejecting their direction at a period when damage control was needed, and by
the time of Election Day her and McCain’s fates were sealed.
performance triumvirate of Moore, Harris, and Harrelson are the
driving forces behind GAME CHANGE; with lesser actors at the helm then the
film could have easily delegated to cheap sensationalism.
Harris may not sound like McCain, per se, but he creates a layered
portrait on an assured, confident, and fairly honorable man that wanted to play
a fair game on his campaign whom later began to resent the high stakes
gamble of selecting a greenhorn like Palin as his running mate.
Even though he refused to play “dirty”, McCain was still guilty
of employing cheap tactics to win when it looked like all hope was lost.
Harris plays him at times as a perpetually foul-mouthed drinker
(this guy drops more F-bombs than a gangster from GOODFELLAS
at times), but Harris tries to make him a believably flawed presence
in the film. The same can be
said of Harrelson as Schmidt, and he sternly evokes a man that
desperately tries to be a strong voice of reason and authority during the
senselessness of all of Palin’s public fubars.
Then there is Moore as Palin, which could have easily been played to the level of a sitcom caricature under the wrong actress’ hands. Moore thanklessly portrays the Palin of public scrutiny – politically and historically dimwitted, sometimes unreasonably obstinate with reporters, and frequently straining to answer simple questions – while also championing her as a very strong willed and devoted mother and wife that truly did believe that she had a calling for greatness. GAME CHANGE does have a discrete level of sympathy for Palin in the sense that she was chosen for her campaign position by parties that never really screened her properly and thoroughly (the campaign crew here deserved a lion's share of blame). Moore’s impersonation of Palin is so uncannily strong that it defies simply mimicry; she simply inhabits the fragile and often unstable mindset of this deeply polarizing figure.
Again, though, GAME CHANGE suffers from a fairly pedestrian and paint-by-numbers approach (it has a script that feels more like a greatest hits compilation of famous news and sound bites of Palin rather than a thoroughly enthralling depiction of her campaign success and woes). I think that the film also glosses over the central sadness of McCain himself. He was a former Vietnam P.O.W. vet that had the clout, career credentials, and overall wherewithal to be a very worthy President that saw his chances seriously dashed not only by Obama’s meteoric rise, but also by his misguided choice of a running mate in Palin, which ultimately led to his political waterloo, of sorts. You may not learn much more about the 2008 presidential campaign by seeing GAME CHANGE, but it contains virtuoso performances that help elevate the film above its deficiencies.
TAKING CHANCE (2009) 1/2
TEMPLE GRANDIN (2010)
THE SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP (2010) 1/2
YOU DON'T KNOW JACK (2010)
THE SUNSET LIMITED (2011)
CINEMA VERITE (2011) 1/2
TOO BIG TO FAIL (2011) 1/2
HEMINGWAY AND GELLHORN (2012) 1/2
THE GIRL (2012)
PHIL SPECTOR (2013)
BEHIND THE CANDELABRA (2013)
CLEAR HISTORY (2013)