I saw an advanced screening of the HBO movie Game Change a few days ago. Writer Danny Strong (who is probably best known for his supporting role on Buffy the Vampire Slayer) was also there, taking questions and answers from the audience.
One of them involved gauging the reaction of the real people who are portrayed in the movie, like Steve Schmidt (played in the film by Woody Harrelson). He was the only one who agreed to watch the film (the filmmakers also asked Palin and McCain), and he told the filmmakers that what is portrayed in the film is exactly what happened.
What else do you need to know? The film was like a trip back in time that does not seek to mock Palin, or the McCain campaign. Rather, it seeks to understand her and use her to explain what voters now look for in candidates. The film would have been disastrous if it had merely tried to place all of the blame on Palin, it would have crashed and burned. But it’s not – Palin is almost presented as a victim of the political process as well. The fault is on the system that does not reward service or intelligence, but on how good people look for the cameras.
The film, for those who don’t know, is focused on Sarah Palin’s nomination as the Republican vice presidential candidate in 2008. On paper, she seemed like the perfect candidate. She is young, she is a woman, and she is a social conservative who comes at a time when McCain seemed too much like a centrist to the Republican base. As the film also repeatedly states, she was the most popular governor in the country. But it was mostly on the surface. Palin was, for all intents and purposes, a virtual dunce when it came to foreign affairs and government policies. To be fair, so are most Americans, but then they aren’t running for higher office. The media latches on and tears her apart. We saw Palin watching Tina Fey’s impersonation of her on Saturday Night Live, with tears in her eyes. We also see Palin crash and burn in an interview with Katie Couric. She has a nervous breakdown, and then bounces back promising herself never to be used again. The McCain staff grows tired of her; some threaten to quit. And in the end, Palin did not save the campaign.
We know this because we saw it unfold in real-time. So what does Game Change do that makes it so interesting? It has to do with Julianne Moore’s portrayal of Palin. It is not caricature, as Tina Fey’s funny SNL appearances were. Moore manages to find the tragedy in the figure of Palin. She plays a woman to whom having a mental breakdown seemed like the most logical choice.
Moore does more than look and sound like Palin. That would merely be an impersonation, like what Tina Fey did. Instead Moore takes the character of Palin to new heights, and is able to see the tragedy of it all. I say “the character of Palin” because I doubt the woman we were ever allowed to see on the campaign trail was the “real” Palin. What we saw was a woman who had been coached endlessly (with stacks of note cards, explaining to her that the Queen of England is not the head of government) in order to make sure that she looked good for the camera and got attention rather than making sure she would be a good government official. It’s an absurdity, which Moore also uses to her advantage.
And that is the other aspect that the film gets totally right – as a critique of the American public’s election sensibility. Most of the film is actually about Schmidt and his increasingly desperate frustrations about the campaign. He is the man who tried to build up Palin, and is ultimately responsible for her. Nothing that happened to Palin, and nothing that she said, was her fault. She accomplished the goals that she was ordered to accomplish by the campaign staff, and worked tirelessly to do so. One scene has Palin falling asleep surrounded by notes on U.S. policy, another has her frantically calling Schmidt after her daughter receives threatening phone calls. Schmidt responded with standard procedure, something that frustrated Palin – and would frustrate anyone.
And besides, there is that mention in the film that Obama had no real accomplishments, but relied on superstar status. Even the film acknowledges that, by using real footage of Obama rather than hiring an actor – as though the symbol of Obama was important rather than the man. But these symbols needed substance. Palin, according to the film, lost because she didn’t have enough to win (“At least Obama was a constitutional law professor” one character says after it is revealed Palin cannot name a Supreme Court case).
Some conservatives have been panning the movie, sight unseen, due to the fact that most of the actors have donated to Democratic candidates. This is a mistake – Palin does not come off as a dunce in the film – but as the fascinating figure that Danny Strong and Jay Roach recognized as “the most amazing political story of our time.” Besides, in this election cycle with old white windbags screening obscenities at each other (and the one smart Republican candidate being constantly pushed aside) it’s possible to look at 2008 with more nostalgia than I ever thought possible.
The film airs on HBO Saturday.