HBO director Jay Roach and screenwriter Danny Strong spent millions of dollars and cast some of Hollywood’s biggest stars in an unparalleled effort to dispel the widespread misperception that John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign was a well-oiled machine.
Game Change, the HBO movie airing on Saturday, is based on a book of the same name, written by John Heilemann of New York magazine and Mark Halperin of Time.
If you are a fan of Sarah Palin, you will loathe this movie. If you hate Sarah Palin, large swaths of this movie will be more thrilling than pornography. If you are somewhere in the middle, you will find yourself wondering why you’re watching big-name actors reenact extremely recent events, with limited new revelations, insight, or lessons from it all. It’s kind of like watching a batch of Oscar-nominated actors performing a dramatic reading of a transcript of the last GOP presidential debate. (Colin Firth as Romney! Daniel Day-Lewis as Santorum! Philip Seymour Hoffman as Gingrich! Sir Ben Kingsley as Ron Paul!) The actors bring their best efforts, but in the end, you realize you’ve seen it before, and not even that long ago.
You have to sympathize with actors who are called upon not just to play familiar faces, but to portray them in scenes where every viewer has already seen the real-life events. Julianne Moore accurately emulates Palin’s crisp enunciation at her first event in Ohio, at the 2008 Republican convention, and in her debate with Biden but . . . why? What’s the point of showing an actress imitating something that we witnessed with our own eyes? The contrast is even odder every time the movie shifts to archival news footage of Barack Obama and Joe Biden. (An actor portrays Biden for one odd backstage pre-debate stretching routine.)
The movie begins and closes with the real Anderson Cooper interviewing Woody Harrelson, reenacting his interview with McCain campaign manager Steve Schmidt (the noble hero in the movie’s narrative). Not once but twice Game Change offers us Moore-as-Palin watching in horror Tina Fey’s impression of her on Saturday Night Live. Somewhere, sometime in the future, the real Sarah Palin will watch Moore-as-Palin watching Fey-as-Palin, and we will set a new record for meta-references. The fact that we know the 2008 election results isn’t the main source of the movie’s predictability.
It’s not really clear that Game Change has much of a lesson or theme beyond “Make sure you thoroughly vet your running mate.” The creators of Game Change have insisted, endlessly, that they were not aiming to create agitprop. And to their credit, they offer a few scenes where Palin is depicted extremely sympathetically, including a montage of Down Syndrome children and their parents coming forward to Palin to say how much her pride in her son has inspired them. Palin haters may shift uncomfortably in their seats at this point. After Schmidt worries about Palin’s physical and mental health, an incredulous doctor remarks, “Considering that she gave birth five months ago, her daughter is pregnant, and her son’s in Iraq, I think she’s doing remarkably well.”
There’s a scene of the Palins late at night, where Todd reassures his wife that she’ll be at her best if she acts natural and talks to the audience as if they were her neighbors. But after that debate with Biden, Moore depicts Palin as the out-of-control diva, and the movie score gets heavy-handed with its Frankenstein theme. You keep waiting for Schmidt to howl, “What have I done? I’ve created a MONSTER!!!!”