From HBO’s perspective, “Game Change” is a home run: a big, smart, entertaining and extremely promotable showcase for marquee stars, generating tons of attention (flattering and otherwise) from political and media strongholds in D.C. and New York, in addition to the usual suspects. Reuniting the creative team behind “Recount,” this adaptation culled from the much-discussed book about the 2008 party primaries and presidential campaign here narrowly focuses on Sarah Palin, and in the broad strokes, it’s red meat for the channel’s liberal base. Viewed less passionately, though, the former Alaska governor is treated more empathetically than her knee-jerk defenders might admit.
Clearly, HBO, director Jay Roach and writer Danny Strong knew exactly what they were doing by zeroing in on Palin, a wildly polarizing figure — alternately viewed as the maligned protector of conservative principles and as Chauncey Gardiner in “Being There” — who, even after bowing out of the 2012 race, remains catnip to the punditocracy. Few TV movies seem so assured of coverage in Maureen Dowd’s New York Times column.
Although Julianne Moore’s uncanny mimicry of Palin’s verbal tics will surely attract praise, the movie revolves around an equally compelling performance by Woody Harrelson as GOP strategist and campaign operative Steve Schmidt, who — recognizing the winds lifting Barack Obama — pressed for a “game-changing” vice presidential selection.
“If he heals a sick baby, we’re really fucked,” a staffer mutters sardonically, watching Obama’s speech before adoring crowds in Berlin.
Nominee John McCain (Ed Harris, perfectly cast, and also terrific) wants to run a dignified race. As the polls looked increasingly desperate, however, his team began throwing haymakers — with Palin more than willing to play the role of hatchet woman that the campaign required.
Roach makes one especially savvy move: Inserting Moore as Palin, “Zelig”-style, into well-documented scenes still fresh in the memory — the Katie Couric and Charlie Gibson interviews, her convention speech, etc. Meticulously replicating those moments subtly adds credibility and authenticity to the behind-the-scenes exchanges drawn from the book.
To all appearances Palin was in over her head, possessing frightfully limited knowledge of world events and history that made her ripe for ridicule. There are some especially meta moments in that regard, with an embarrassed Palin, as played by Moore, watching Tina Fey’s devastating “Saturday Night Live” imitation of her.
Nevertheless, the portrait isn’t entirely unsympathetic, reflecting how the frustration of those playing Henry Higgins to Palin’s Eliza Doolittle — foremost GOP strategist Nicolle Wallace (Sarah Paulson) — was mirrored by Palin’s own anguish over being characterized as an unschooled hick. And if she eschews profanity (she refers to a debate prep session as being “flippin’ awesome”) those surrounding her have no such compunctions.
“Name one fucking paper!” Schmidt erupts at the TV during the Couric interview.
Schmidt — who has since become an adept MSNBC analyst — is clearly shown to harbor buyer’s remorse over a hastily vetted, “high risk, high reward” choice, meant to cynically pander to the Republican base.
Yet if “Game Change” concludes that selecting Palin was irresponsible, the movie doesn’t blame her for it. Nevertheless, it’s already been attacked and dismissed by Palin surrogates — shedding crocodile tears, no doubt, given how a product of “liberal Hollywood” allows her to play the victim, again, of the much-despised elitist media.
Beyond the campaign, the movie yields sobering observations about the legitimacy of cable news (“all just bullshit”), modern political extremism and the shrillest voices influencing the Republican Party.
“It wasn’t a campaign. It was a bad reality show,” Schmidt says ruefully.
Palin subsequently starred in a bad reality show and remains a lightning rod for controversy. In a way, though, HBO has something in common with the beleaguered McCain brain trust — seeking a bold pick to excite key constituencies. And by that measure, the network’s choice is flippin’ awesome.