Sarah Palin has already dismissed HBO’s “Game Change” as a “false narrative,” but it certainly isn’t a dull one.
Woody Harrelson, playing senior McCain campaign strategist Steve Schmidt, laments on election night, 2008, when it is abundantly clear that the ticket was going to lose, “This wasn’t a campaign. It was a bad reality show.”
The movie, premiering on March 10, is based on the best-selling book about the 2008 campaign by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, but it focuses solely on the McCain candidacy, and even then on his unexpected selection of Palin as his running mate.
Surely aware from the book what would likely to end up in the movie, Palin is about as likely to endorse this movie as she is to support President Obama. Julianne Moore’s portrayal highlights the intense pressure that she faced when she was thrust into the race, unaware of what she was getting herself into, as well as the devotion she had to her family and the dismay when the media scrutiny turned to her children.
But the arc of Palin’s story is that of eager No. 2, to rising star, to something that was almost diva like. The McCain team realizes that there is much that she does not know: What the Fed is, the fact that North and South Korea are separate countries, and even suggests that the Queen is the head of British government, not the Prime Minister. But as the campaign does their best to prep her — “She’s a great actress, why don’t we just give her some lines?” Schmidt says— she gets ever more unresponsive, particularly to her communications chief, Nicolle Wallace. Instead of prepping for the disastrous Katie Couric interview, Palin is fixated on her approval numbers in Alaska.
“You have ruined me. You have ruined my reputation. I am ruined in Alaska,” Palin shouts at Wallace after the interview, slamming a cell phone against a wall.
Only when Schmidt chucks the traditional debate prep, and essentially gives her a 25 Q&A script, does Palin survive and even thrive in the debate with Joseph Biden, but it is not enough to change the trajectory of the race.
Palin goes rogue, countering the campaign’s directives to the point where Schmidt asks McCain to step in and talk to her and perhaps rein her in. “She is not going to do it, Steve,” McCain, played by Ed Harris, says. “She might start turning on me.”
The movie has a nifty climax, in the form of words that McCain shared with Palin on Election Night, warning of getting “co-opted” by Rush Limbaugh and other extremists. A theme is how politics has become an entertainment — so perhaps it is fitting that there are several clips of Tina Fey in her infamous Palin sketches on “Saturday Night Live.” They also help contrast her caricature with Moore’s portrayal, nuanced for sure, but not enough to cede the spotlight.
Nevertheless, Schmidt is the moral center of “Game Change,” and is practically haunted by the fact that he was the one who so pushed for Palin to be the game changer, only to see it all go so awry.
The authors, Heilemann and Halperin, have a cameo, as reporters hounding Schmidt during the Republican National Convention. Schmidt is complaining about the unfair, personal media coverage of Palin in the initial days of the St. Paul convention, and even points out that he’s been asked the “shameful” question of when the Alaska governor’s fluid leaked during her pregnancy. Heilemann then shoots back, “So when did it start leaking?”