The Washington Post

‘Game Change’ and the optics of optics

Ed Harris as Arizona Sen. John McCain and Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin in “Game Change.” (Phil Caruso/AP)

It’s a backstage view of the political operatives whose job is to gauge and influence the “optics” of their client’s interviews, rope line appearances, origin stories and family life.

I’m a sucker for presidential campaign histories and war room gossip. History may be written by the winners, but campaign pornography is written by the news media and their sources. But that said, the movie based on a book drawn from a campaign built on an illusion to me dilutes authenticity a bit too much. Call it a bridge to nowhere too far.

The HBO fictional reenactment of “Game Change” plucks several anecdotes about difficult moments surrounding the McCain campaign’s selection and grooming of Sarah Palin to “become one of the most famous people on the planet.”

Written by Danny Strong, who also scripted the Gore-Bush 2000 election movie “Recount” for HBO, the drama casts Woody Harrelson as republican operative Steve Schmidt, who clearly was an important source for both the book’s authors and the film’s screenwriter.

Early in the story, Harrelson/Schmidt warns the Palin character, played by Julianne Moore, “Your life will be investigated, manipulated, distorted and you will lose any semblance of privacy.”   

But whatever Schmidt actually told the mother of five in Naughty Monkey red peep-toe pumps four years ago could not possibly have prepared her for the volcanic eruption from her Richter-scale-level optical force.

As big a bump as her natural “pit bull in lipstick” ability gave the campaign initially, the inexperienced candidate could nevertheless not feign competence in the media and public by memorizing answers to reporters’ foreign policy questions.  

The optics shifted disastrously in an interview with ABC News’s Charlie Gibson, and her credibility disappeared faster than her obscurity had done.

In one particularly meta moment during the cable movie, as Moore portraying Palin is watching actual footage of Tina Fey impersonating Palin, it sinks in, maybe for the first time, that the stakes for her and her family are very, very personal. 

The McCain gambit to change his campaign with the Palin pick ultimately failed, but for Sarah and her family the decision was indeed game-changing.  The scenes depicting tender teenagers, Bristol Palin, 16 and pregnant, clutching the hand of her high-school boyfriend, Levi, do not hint at the reality TV performer and naked model they would become, but in the end the Palin clan persevered.

The family matriarch today has a political empire, a cable news platform, a rabidly loyal base of supporters and a political action committee currently holding millions of dollars in contributions.  

And the third generation of Palin’s show business family has a new series in production, named for her daughter and grandson: “Bristol Palin: Life’s a Tripp.”    

Which shows how far optics can take somebody.



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