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!!!!”
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.