Watching Jay Roach's Game Change (2012)—an HBO exclusive, premiering Saturday, March 10—disrupted my theory that viewing a film about politics has to be "work." From start to finish, Game Change is pure pleasure, aided in part by the excellent work of Ed Harris, Woody Harrelson and Julianne Moore, but also thanks to Danny Strong's smart, playful script that stays quick on its feet throughout the proceedings.
Adapted from the book by political analysts Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, Game Change tells a story we thought we all know: how former Alaska governor Sarah Palin came to be John McCain's pick for vice president, and how she might have contributed to the GOP candidate's failure to win the presidency in 2008.
Game Change tells this much-recounted saga with verve and humor, forgoing all that heady political stuff in favor of something more accessible. I know little about whether or not what's portrayed in Game Change is factually accurate, and I care even less. For my money, the film is honest in its depiction of the ignorant, gun-tooting, right-wing-touting Palin. The script is at times sympathetic and critical; as bipolar as Palin has been purported to be. This attitude really works. "Why now?" you may ask of Game Change's debut, which arrives almost four years after the events in the film take place. I don't really know, except I imagine that the filmmakers saw an opportunity to expose to a broader public a set of issues still waking and walking in our own political moment.
This film emphasizes the artifice that makes up a political campaign, how every step of John McCain's running—and any political running for that matter—was conceived to convince the American people of a certain image. Neither McCain nor Palin are ever really seen pulling the strings. Prior to the vice presidential debate, Palin is handed scripted lines that she must memorize; she and her family are adorned with expensive clothing; both Palin's narrative as a "woman of the people" and McCain's as an American war hero are constructed to convince voters of their relatability and pragmatism relative to Barack Obama's so-called "celebrity" at the time. The makings of a bid for office, as seen in Game Change, resemble what goes on behind the scenes of a movie or TV show. Certain fictions are erected to uphold the promise of change for America, but these are in fact palliative measures that work like an anesthetic, easing pain and numbing national panic, but with no solution for the long term.
Though the film already has its share of detractors—the film holds a whopping 2.2 member rating on IMDb, though how can this be if the film hasn't premiered yet?—Game Change is in no way a piece of liberally-minded propaganda with aims to convince viewers of the GOP's inadequacy. HBO audiences, after all, don't need a movie to tell them that. Sarah Palin has already taken public umbrage at the movie being made; but, Julianne Moore has done more than just give us an exaggerated caricature of Palin. Moore embodies her as fully as she has Laura Brown (The Hours), Amber Waves (Boogie Nights) or Cathy Whitaker (Far From Heaven). She goes above and beyond what we already know of Palin to create an entirely new—and probably more interesting—person. Playing a public figure who is still alive is a prickly feat, but Moore pulls it off with grace, giving Palin a layer of pathos and trouble beneath the gloss of the hockey mom, a pathos which the highly stylized campaign circuit otherwise denied us. Palin shouldn't be so quick to criticize. It is, after all, the "gotcha media" that got her here.
Game Change reiterates what we already knew of Palin's ignorance of foreign affairs, and ignorance of pretty much anything outside Alaska. It tries to reconcile why McCain put her on the ticket at all, and ultimately it seems that the decision was rather arbitrary, and one of desperation. Moore reenacts Palin's infamous, painful-to-watch interviews with Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric, exposing Palin's clay feet under the limelight. But then, the film stages the previously unseen aftermath of these interviews, and how the "media circus" that put Palin under scrutiny triggered a kind of existential crisis. Moore's Palin slips into a catatonic funk, refusing to obey her staff and to study piles of note-cards on foreign policy, and desperately clinging to her family through text messages and late-night phone calls.
The real life Palin denies any such "funk," but the depression we see in Game Change lends believability to the dehumanizing face of a political campaign. Who wouldn’t panic under such pressure? Diegetically, the film faults McCain and his staff—including campaign strategist Steve Schmidt (an always excellent, ferocious Woody Harrelson)—for not probing deeply enough into Palin's past and her inexperience with foreign policy.
But as Palin starts to regain her footing and climb to the top, redeeming her public status after a rousing debate with Obama VP pick Joe Biden—who Palin can't seem to stop calling "O'Biden"—political corruption and opportunism possess her. Palin undergoes a kind of Black Swan transformation, undermining the authority of Schmidt and other PR staff to make her way back onto the center stage of attention. In doing so, she upstages even McCain himself, who in this film is shown to have a very hands-off approach with regard to the campaign strategy, and doesn't want to go near Palin with a ten-foot pole. We witness Palin's about-face metamorphosis in full when, on the eve of the election, she whispers into Schmidt's ear, "I really don't want to go back to Alaska"—had she won, Palin would've gone to great lengths to forsake the denizens she had previously held so close to her cuddly little heart. A scary thought for Alaska, and all of us.
Director Jay Roach, responsible for such unfortunate films as Dinner for Schmucks and the Austin Powers series, handles the material with a pronounced ambivalence toward political, and even aesthetic, partisan. As I see it, Roach and screenwriter Strong treat McCain, Palin, Schmidt and their cohorts as characters, not as real-life figures begging to be taken off the mantle and scrutinized like specimens. If there are gross distortions in the film, I'll leave that to the more politically savvy to decide. As a made-for-TV movie with an A-list cast giving A-list performances, Game Change is well-meaning fun with enough edge and seriousness to generate a dialogue. The movie isn't doing that for you—it's just extending the invitation.