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Entries in Game Change [2012] (1)

Monday
Mar122012

Game Change (2012)

The Impression That I Get

History would be a wonderful thing, if it were only true.

--Leo Tolstoy

Big thanks to Lionel for turning me on to that quote. My brain echo-looped it while watching Game Change the other night, and I can't shake the feeling that writer Danny Strong and director Jay Roach tried to pull a fast one on me.

I don't typically review television movies. Then again, this isn't TV, it's HBO. And as HBO movies go, this one is really strange. Based on a portion of Mark Halperin and John Heilemann's book about the historic 2008 presidential election, Game Change features a gaggle of Hollywood actors portraying Washington ones. The film's main selling point is trotting out Julianne Moore in full Sarah Palin garb and gab to once again remind the nation of how close it came to electing a dangerous idiot.

That's the movie's position, not mine. I don't know enough about Palin as a person or a politician to make such judgments, even though I thought I did at the time. Yes, I was a full-on anti-Palin, pro-Obama Progressive back in the day--the kind of obedient lefty who got his news from Meet the Press and watched Fox News all weekend long to enjoy sustained fits of laughter. In short, I was Game Change's target audience.

A lot has happened since 2008, and Game Change feels several years overdue. I won't delve too deeply into "conspiratorial" chatter by suggesting this is a piece of election-cycle propaganda. But from a more centrist vantage point, it's easy to see the film as a warning against the kind of bat-shit crazy ultra-conservatism that President Obama allegedly faces once again. The movie is very careful to point out that his opponent that year, John McCain (Ed Harris), was a principled, old-school Republican whose rogue, desperate staff forced a running mate on him who would appeal to the basest elements of key demographics: women and whites.

Indeed, the real star here is Woody Harrelson as Steve Schmidt, the savvy operator tapped by McCain to find and manage a VP candidate. Schmidt was the right-wing Dr. Frankenstein, cobbling together the most electable qualities from his limited field of options into a seemingly perfect, powerhouse package. Palin was a mother of five (family values), a governor (outsider political experience), and a Christian conservative (every other item on the checklist). What she wasn't, though, according to the movie, was knowledgeable about world affairs or right in the head.

We follow her from rock star to wreck in a whirlwind three months on the campaign trail, with Schmidt outsourcing her political mentorship to staffer Nicole Wallace (Sarah Paulson). Following embarrassing interviews with Charles Gibson and Katie Couric--as well as viciously funny lampooning by Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live--Palin begins to suffer a nervous breakdown. She refuses to prep for debates and expresses distrust of everyone around her. The only time she opens up is when she sees or talks to her family from Wasilla, Alaska.

These turn out to be crocodile tears, we're told, as Palin turns on a dime to become a power-and-fame-hungry monster. After Wallace threatens to quit if she's not reassigned to McCain's tour bus exclusively, Schmidt checks back in to find an egotistical monster in designer clothes, charging ahead to the presidency (you read that right).

If you set aside the movie's conceit that they're based in reality, Harrelson and Moore's last few scenes together are really powerful stuff. Schmidt's nagging guilt about promoting an attractive cipher to the second-highest office in the land become full-blown conscience ulcers, which are cured only after their team loses the election. His catharsis is ours, too, as he gleefully puts Palin in her place--and then watches in horror as the crowd chants her name during McCain's concession speech.

It's great drama, to be sure, but I can't take Game Change seriously as anything but drama. If Roach and Strong meant it to be true, they came up short in a few key areas. The first is tone. Is the movie a comedy, a drama, or both? As I just said, a few scenes pack quite an emotional punch. But others recall Roach's Austin Powers films, such as the moment leading up to Palin's debate with Joe Biden. She watches him from across the stage, doing exaggerated, pre-workout-style stretches in the wings, and begins to do the same. It's one of a dozen examples of moments that may have happened in real life, but which, if taken as a whole, come off as farce.

This cracks the door on other elements of the story, too; namely, how accurate are the bedroom conversations between Sarah and her husband, Todd (David Barry Gray)? I don't know that either of the Palins were interviewed for the book, meaning it's possible that Halperin and Heilemann's writing was based either on speculation or second- or third-hand accounts; these were then written and edited down to a manuscript--which was filtered through the mind of a screenwriter, further edited, and beamed onto your screen.

I'm sure this is not a new process, especially in the realm of filmed political drama. But it presents a very real danger for audience members who get their political opinions from television. Given the media's cartoonish portrayal of Sarah Palin (not all of it, I'd bet, unearned), it's not a huge leap for someone to watch Julianne Moore and think that she really nailed her "nut job" target. Curiously, or maybe not so curiously, Game Change lacks any insight as to Palin's opposition. All of the Democrats are presented through archival footage, any flaws or humanity they might have unwittingly laid bare glossed over by the "Hope" and "Change" advertising campaign that swept them to victory.

What was that behind-the-scenes drama like, I wonder? We'll probably never know, even if someone makes a movie about it.

Note: I guess it's good form to talk about how successful actors are when portraying historical figures. I didn't touch on that here because, for me, that was the least-interesting part of Game Change. But if you insist...

Ed Harris perfectly captures John McCain's look and body language. When he opens his mouth, though, he sounds like Ed Harris. It's particularly jarring when he says "Fuck" (about every other word). I have no problem with McCain swearing--except when it's in Harris' voice.

Julianne Moore's Sarah Palin is a big problem. I was conscious of the actress playing the politician the whole time; her meticulous attention to detail screamed, "Emmy nod! Emmy nod!" for two hours. Though, honestly, her accent was far more Midwest than Upper Peninsula, and her lips were pursed way too tightly in an effort to capture Palin's weirdly jutting, zippered mouth. It's as if Moore's preparation involved the now-famous Conservative method of contraception involving an aspirin and clenched knees.