Some ‘Change’
All this hype for something we all saw three years ago?

Ed Harris (John McCain) and Julianne Moore (Sarah Palin) in Game Change (HBO)


Jim Geraghty

Although the book Game Change is about the entire 2008 race, in the film Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and the other Democrats are offstage the entire time. Observers have noticed that the book offered a lot of tense, previously unreported drama in the primary fight between Obama and Clinton. Perhaps the creators of the film would have felt creatively restricted in telling a story about the current president and the current secretary of state. Or perhaps they couldn’t bring themselves to portray any Democrat negatively.

Palin’s camp has complained about the inaccuracy of the film; its creators dismiss the complaint. Danny Strong, the actor who wrote the screenplay, told MSNBC, “We stand by the film as being completely accurate and truthful and representing what happened. It’s true. The movie’s true.”

Any film that portrays the events of months or years is going to truncate events, leave things out, and make other changes to fit the running time and pacing of a movie. But where the filmmakers really let their disdain for everyone involved in the McCain campaign seep through is in the scenes they added.

For example, one foreign-policy adviser shows Palin a map and declares, “This is Germany. They were the primary antagonists during World War I and World War II. They allied with Japan to form what became known as the Axis Powers.” A fascinated Palin dutifully writes it down. The scene does not appear in the Heilemann and Halperin book. This scene was the opening anecdote of the glowing review by Bloomberg. Foreign-policy analyst Randy Scheunemann, Palin’s primary adviser on these issues during the campaign, calls the scene “absolutely untrue.”

Told that none of the potential running mates his team has been discussing will help his trailing campaign, Ed Harris’s McCain responds, rather dismissively, “Okay, so find me a woman.” Those words never appear in the book, and Steve Schmidt has stated McCain never said that. (It’s a small point, but the usually solid actor Harris occasionally portrays McCain raising his arms over his head at campaign rallies, something that his war injuries make impossible for McCain to do.)

Harrelson’s Steve Schmidt watches Palin’s answers to Katie Couric’s questions and gasps, “Oh my God! What have we done?” That scene and those words do not appear in Heilemann and Halperin’s book, either.

You can’t invent scenes and quotes and then insist the film is “completely accurate and truthful.”

The creators of Game Change would probably insist that their work be interpreted as a work of entertainment, not journalism. But each change from the book (presuming, of course, Heilemann and Halperin’s reporting is accurate) moves the story in a particular direction. Palin becomes dumber. McCain becomes more craven, cynical, and desperate to win. McCain’s campaign aides are sloppier, more panicky, a mess. What director Roach and screenwriter Strong are portraying is recent history as they wish it had been.

Of course, movies create their own legends and shape public perception in ways that mere journalism can’t. The words “Follow the money” never appear in the book version of All the President’s Men.

For all the efforts of the cast, it’s easy to be left wondering what the point of all this is. As it is, Game Change’s creators seem to fear that the existing perception of Sarah Palin is too positive, and that the existing reputation of the 2008 McCain campaign is too generous. It’s theoretically possible that some viewers will find this film surprising and revealing; they would be that very small demographic of people who have no memory or knowledge of the 2008 presidential campaign, but are interested in watching a movie about it.

An ungenerous mind might suspect that when Roach and Strong chose to create the film, they believed Sarah Palin would be running for president right now, or might even be the de facto GOP nominee. They might have thought that Obama’s reelection campaign would require a heavily hyped star vehicle designed to remind voters of all those important messages — that Palin knows nothing, that she’s a basket case, that she’s “crazy” enough to believe the hand of God can be seen in everything in her life, and so on. They might have believed that the goal of a second term for Obama could be achieved by a negative biopic designed to portray Sarah Palin as the worst possible choice for commander-in-chief.

Even a glamorous, big-budget, 120-minute attack ad would have at least been relevant to the moment. As it is, the movie was made by people who didn’t vote for Sarah Palin for an audience that doesn’t like Sarah Palin — a two-hour exercise of creators and viewers patting themselves on the back and exclaiming, “Aren’t we terrific for not voting for Sarah Palin?”

— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.