HBO debuted its newest original film this past weekend to much hype in the political realm. Game Change is based on journalists John Heilemann & Mark Halperin‘s 2010 book Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime, which, as you can guess, chronicled the behind-the-scenes action of the 2008 presidential election. The film was directed by Jay Roach and adapted by Danny Strong, both of whom were the primary creative forces behind HBO’s 2008 film Recount, about the 2000 election and its aftermath. Part of the reason I was so excited to see Game Change was because I thought Recount was absolutely fantastic, and perhaps most importantly, I found that movie to be very fair to both Bush and Gore‘s sides of that very polarizing story. Sarah Palin is an equally divisive figure, and telling the story of her rise to prominence honestly but accurately was to be a tricky road to navigate.
The book Game Change is widely considered factual. The writers apparently gathered the information from more than 300 different sources involved in all areas of the campaign, although unfortunately, every single one of them is anonymous/uncredited. Even with that, very little of what was written has been contested by any of the major players involved. I have not read the book, but I was always interested in checking it out, and after watching this movie, my desire to read it has skyrocketed. I guess it’s divided into 3 sections; the battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, the Republican primary contests, and finally the dynamics of John McCain‘s selection of Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. The movie only deals with the McCain/Palin section, which is kinda disappointing, but also understandable considering it was only ever gonna be one 2-hour movie. Still, I wanna see another 2-hour movie dealing with the Obama/Clinton battle, which was every bit as dramatic.
They couldn’t possibly cover the entire book in one movie. In a perfect world, this would have been even better as a 3-part miniseries. Regardless, I’m just assuming this is the aspect of the campaign the filmmakers felt would make for the best drama. I’m gonna give them the benefit of the doubt that it wasn’t because they really, really wanted to make Sarah Palin and Republicans look bad. Again, Recount was fair to Bush, so despite many conservatives’ presumptions, I had confidence Game Change wouldn’t be blatantly out of line. There’s really no upside to doing that, and if you’re a partisan lefty, there are plenty of places to get your fix on irrational, dishonest Bush and Palin hate. On the other side, if you want to view Sarah Palin’s emergence through rosy-colored glasses, you can go read her book. Personally, I’m not interested in either of those things. The film treats Sarah Palin the mother and person with respect, but make no mistake, as a politician and candidate for Vice President, she is portrayed in the film with every negative connotation you’ve ever heard, read or seen attributed to her. It’s harsh, but I don’t think it was over the line. It is of course impossible for us to know how much of this is accurate or close to accurate, but if you piece together what’s happened since that election, it’s logical to assume that most of what we see dramatized is truthful in spirit, even if it isn’t a verbatim account. Do I believe Palin was woefully uneducated in foreign affairs? Hell yes. That was painfully obvious if you paid attention during that campaign. Do I believe she became obsessed with her own star power as it became clear she, not John McCain, was the media’s priority on the GOP ticket? Yes. I found especially interesting how concerned she was with how she was being perceived back in Alaska after joining the ticket.
That leads us to the performances. This is a really, really good cast from top to bottom, with the spotlight glaring on Julianne Moore‘s portrayal of Palin. Wow. It’s obvious to make note of what a perfect Palin impersonation Moore does here (putting Tina Fey‘s SNL skits to shame), but this performance is much more than an impersonation. It is nuanced and real, never over the top. It’s some of Moore’s best work, which is saying a lot given her body of work. If I ever do a new list of my favorite actresses, Moore is probably gonna end up in the top 10. Particularly impressive was how she was able to precisely recreate several critical moments from the campaign, notably her speech at the Republican National Convention, and some key moments from her Vice Presidential debate with Joe Biden.
Ed Harris‘ John McCain is a sympathetic figure, treated honestly and with great respect. His staff is loyal and they truly admire the man. McCain is more of a supporting player here, but his presence is felt. If you ask me, McCain didn’t really have a shot at beating Obama under those circumstances no matter who he chose as his running mate, but I understand why they made the Palin move, and if you don’t, the movie makes it perfectly clear. The fault can’t really be placed solely at Palin’s feet. It was the Republicans’ fault for choosing McCain as their nominee coming off of 8 years of George W. Bush. But that’s another debate for another time. Harris does a wonderful job and a pretty damn good physical impersonation. I especially loved his reactions late in the film to some of his supporters, many of whom gave into their worst instincts, calling Obama a terrorist, a Muslim, or just being outright racist. In the film, he is really offput by some of those reactions, as I remember him being in real life at the time. He tries to stick to his principles and run an honest, noble campaign against what quickly became an Obama juggernaut. As history shows, it just wasn’t meant to be. I’m not a big fan of McCain as a politician, but from watching him then, and having met him and seen him in action in person just a couple months ago, one thing you can’t call him is fake or disingenuous.
My favorite performance in the film comes from Woody Harrelson (who is enjoying a welcome career revival these days), playing one of McCain’s chief advisers, Steve Schmidt. He isn’t the one who discovers Palin (that would have been Rick Davis, McCain’s Campaign Manager, played by Peter MacNicol), but he was her most vocal proponent in convincing McCain she was exactly what they need to shake up the campaign and get momentum swung back in their favor. As time rolls on, doubt creeps in as to whether or not the move was a net positive as Palin’s many flaws as a national candidate begin to reveal themselves. Harrelson gets many of the best lines in the film (his one-on-one battle with Palin late in the film where he chews her out for trying to give a concession speech is Aaron Sorkin/West Wing good), and watching him react non-verbally to Palin is a show in and of itself. The later into the campaign it gets, the more he realizes what a terrible mistake they’ve probably made, and it’s really interesting watching that develop in the performance.
Also noteworthy are the previously mentioned Peter MacNicol, Sarah Paulson as Nicolle Wallace (who became Palin’s campaign manager and, if we’re being told the truth, had great difficulty managing the Alaska governor and getting her to cooperate and focus on the task at hand), Jamey Sheridan as McCain confidant Mark Salter (who was the most hesitant to bringing Palin on board from the start), and Ron Livingston as Mark Wallace, also tasked with keeping Palin on point.
Danny Strong had a large task adapting this book into a movie, and as I’ve indicated from my praise of the performances, the script is one of the movie’s greatest assets. I guess he even discovered some new facts about the campaign while working on the script, which is a great credit to his researching. Apparently, the fact that after dealing with Palin intimately, Nicolle Wallace couldn’t in good conscience vote for the very campaign she was working on was something Strong discovered himself. It’s a great moment in the film. He doesn’t have many credits as a writer, something that definitely needs to change going forward.
One more thing I should note is that they also did a great job using archival news footage and interviews from the likes of CNN, MSNBC, Fox News and the big networks. They even pull some cool Forrest Gump moves with visual effects in placing the actors from the movie inside the actual speeches, debates and interviews from 2008, adding that much more realism to it, which I really enjoyed.
HBO has done it again, and you can expect to see Game Change represented well at this year’s Emmy awards. It’s one of the best movies I’ve seen so far in 2012, in theaters or otherwise. If you have HBO, obviously I’m strongly recommending you check this out (they’re re-running it constantly this week, so DVRing it should be no problem). If not, throw it on your Netflix cue. This is a good watch even if you’re not a civics junkie like me, but if you’re at all interested in politics and the behind-the-scenes goings on of a campaign, this is must-watch, whether you’re Democrat, Republican or independent. Any way you slice it, it’s superb filmmaking, writing and acting. Really, there’s no excuse not to see it.
IMDb rating: 8/10
You can find the original 60 Minutes piece with Steve Schmidt, which aired in January, 2010 right around when Game Change the book first came out here: Revelations From The Campaign. Really interesting stuff, where Schmidt admits the errors that were made, talks about Palin’s unpreparedness, and basically admits choosing her was a mistake.