A film review by Craig J. Koban March 14, 2012



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 Pendleton

Directed 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.  

It simply 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. 

Even 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.  

The 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 in Obama.  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.  

Their options for a vice-presidential candidate were not strong.  Initially, 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.  

Palin (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. 

However, 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. 

The 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. 


CrAiGeR's other

Film Reviews:


RECOUNT  (2008 jjjj


TAKING CHANCE  (2009 jj1/2


TEMPLE GRANDIN  (2010 jjjj




YOU DON'T KNOW JACK  (2010 jjjj




CINEMA VERITE  (2011 jj1/2


TOO BIG TO FAIL  (2011jj1/2




THE GIRL  (2012) jj


PHIL SPECTOR  (2013) jjj




CLEAR HISTORY  (2013) jjj



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