HBO’s ‘Game Change’: Sarah Palin and the toxic political environment

What if I told you that “Game Change,” the acrimoniously anticipated HBO movie airing Saturday night, might make you feel sorry for Sarah Palin?

Weird, right? The movie seems to want you to realize that there’s a human being there, someone who could use a break from the scorn and expectation heaped upon her. In fact, all the major players in “Game Change” could have done a lot worse when it comes to being depicted by Hollywood: Sen. John McCain; his 2008 campaign staff; the election industry; the voracious media; the Palin clan. Nobody comes off looking so great, but there are also no real monsters. (Monstrous behavior, sure.)

Gallery

Gallery

GoingOut Guide
Looking for things to do?
Select one or more criteria to search
Get ideas

Instead, the film’s most scathing indictment is a symbolic one: It attacks our mutual inability to communicate.

How on Earth, in a nation so technologically gifted and an age so flush with instant information, can we remain so woefully uninformed, willfully dissonant and bad at knowing one another? How could everyone in a presidential campaign manage to believe that somebody else had vetted the Alaska governor for the GOP presidential ticket? How can someone aspire to being a heartbeat away from the Oval Office without a firm grasp of basic history and current events? How did magical thinking become our default setting?

Much of what goes on in “Game Change” may in fact echo your workplace, where memos go unread and e-mails unresponded to; where the flashiest talkers get promoted too soon; where difficult questions are merely unwelcome interruptions to the PowerPoint presentation; where no one has a clue but everyone is engaged in operatic levels of self-preservation while constantly monitoring their BlackBerrys. (Yes, it was still mostly BlackBerrys then.)

There’s plenty more to say about “Game Change,” an adaptation of some of the juiciest chapters from Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s behind-the-scenes bestseller about the uglier and more desperate moments of the ’08 election.

But to do that, I regrettably must stop to wriggle into my hazmat suit.

TV reviews, you see, are now considered another toxic byproduct of the culture wars. There is nothing I can say about “Game Change” — good, bad or indifferent — that won’t be taken the wrong way by somebody.

Nevertheless, it’s a good movie. (Wince, duck.) It’s a lot better than the network’s numbingly rote “Too Big to Fail” last year and almost as good as the memorably gripping “Recount,” the 2008 HBO movie about the forever-disputed outcome of the 2000 election.

Recount” was conceived by the same guys who have made “Game Change” (director Jay Roach and screenwriter Danny Strong). The two films could easily stand as a matched set of quasi-historical depictions of our dirty, early-21st-century politics. “Recount” succeeded, in part, because it had an eight-year buffer zone from the events it depicted. “Game Change” comes too soon and too raw, smack in the middle of another ugly political season.

To answer the question everyone wants to know about “Game Change”: It takes no more than 40 seconds to accustom yourself to Julianne Moore’s eerily perfect take on Palin. Despite initial misgivings when the first photos came out of Moore done up in Palin’s hairdo and trademark specs (pictures that for some reason conjured unfortunate reminders of Moore doing a bad Boston accent on “30 Rock”), “Game Change” ranks among her finest performances. (Flinch, swerve.)

Like its star character, the movie can be interpreted a number of ways, depending on your vantage point. If you are eternally baffled by Palin’s rise, then please enjoy the horror flick. If you harbor sympathy for someone who was plucked from near-obscurity and thrust into an impossible 11-week frenzy far beyond her skills or education, then it’s a psychological thriller. If you’re just a politics wonk, then it’s basically porn.

Moore doesn’t carry the film all on her own. Woody Harrelson is steely good as Steve Schmidt, McCain’s senior campaign strategist, a resolute hardhead who finds himself coping with the meltdowns around him. Ed Harris makes for an uneven McCain, lapsing in and out of character. Sarah Paulson is only okay as Nicolle Wallace, the senior campaign adviser upon whom falls the frustrating task of bringing Palin up to speed.

As with comedian commentator Stephen Colbert’s sense of “truthiness,” “Game Change” is built from factiness. It often seems a hair away from simply including footnotes in the screen crawl.

After a clumsy, post-campaign prologue and epilogue scene that re-creates the footage of the interview Schmidt (Harrelson, that is) gives to “60 Minutes” with an actual Anderson Cooper asking the questions, “Game Change” adheres to the chronology and events as most of us remember them: There is the dust-up over teenage Bristol Palin’s pregnancy, the “gotcha” interview with CBS anchor Katie Couric, the talking points, the cost of the fancy clothes, the humiliating Tina Fey impressions, the campaign’s brief wave of relief after Palin’s performance in the TV debate with Sen. Joe Biden.

Tiny flaws come close to undermining the success of “Game Change” as a mere film. Its breakneck pace and desire to cram everything into two hours leads to a newsreel vibe that tempts the mind into noticing trivial lapses in verisimilitude — such as how completely un-Toddlike the actor (David Barry Gray) who plays Todd Palin is, or how bad the wig is on the Couric stand-in.

This pantomime parlor game can be great fun for news junkies, who can hoot and holler through a “Game Change” watching party. But there’s also an emptiness to the experience, in which our recent and contentious history is slapped together and served to us as a fresh dish. How’s it taste?

Not quite done.

* * *

Everything I’ve just typed could amount to fightin’ words. The online comments field below this review will probably soon populate with trolls; by the end of the next news cycle, my inbox will look like a refrigerator from “Hoarders.” A critic gets this sort of blow-back all the time, about any sort of show. I took it from the left when I failed to admire Chelsea Clinton’s dopey debut as an NBC News correspondent. I got it from the right when, of all things, I was creeped out by the binge capitalism in a reality series about obsessive coupon-clippers.

“Game Change” is different in that the stink started before most people (including me) even saw what Roach’s movie had to offer. Palin and her associates called the film false and even cruel — again, unseen. On a radio show Monday, McCain said he won’t be watching “Game Change” and accuses the left (which ostensibly includes HBO and the whole liberal cabal of premium-cable television addicts) of being sore winners.

The conservative Web site Big Hollywood, one of an array of successful sites launched by the recently deceased Andrew Breitbart, has vociferously attacked “Game Change” for its blunt narrative — that is, choosing Palin was a colossal strategic mistake that cost McCain the election. In its typically aggressive manner, Big Hollywood has raised legitimate questions about why HBO had to make this film, now, this way.

Last week (a day before Breitbart collapsed and died), Brandon Darby wrote a call to arms on Big Hollywood that lambasted not only HBO but also the critics whose job it is to review “Game Change,” or, in the right’s assumption, carry water for it: “Like animals feasting on rotting flesh, [critics] work themselves into a frenzy to crush or promote films depending on their political narrative,” Darby wrote. “Simply calling out HBO isn’t enough. We need to watch the coming critic frenzy and specifically call them out as individuals along with their respective outlets.”

I might have missed that particular blog post if HBO hadn’t drawn my attention to it and sent a letter to TV critics and editors detailing the work and attention to detail that went into making “Game Change.” Strong, the screenwriter, “spoke to 25 people intimately involved in the campaign, including the most senior advisors. He reached out to Gov. Palin and Sen. McCain, who declined to talk to him,” the letter said.

HBO also emphasized that Palin’s own memoir, “Going Rogue,” served as secondary reference material for the filmmakers, as did all that media coverage during and after the campaign. Palin’s deputy chief of staff during the 2008 campaign served as an adviser on the movie’s set.

And so on and so on. Beneath the Breitbart gang’s anger, I sense a genuine longing to have anything like an HBO in their corner of Tinseltown— a high-quality network that would cater, even subconsciously, to conservative perspectives and interests. From HBO, I sense an uncharacteristic defensiveness about “Game Change,” expressed in a flurry of fact-checking points that, frankly, many TV watchers won’t ever dwell on.

Without getting into another exegesis of the content and reporting methods of Heilemann and Halperin’s book (an activity that kept Washington’s media critics and insiders atwitter for some time in early 2010), the movie version of “Game Change” reflects only a fraction of what’s there.

Other meaty stories in the book are just-as-good screenplay fodder, and they’re about Democrats: Hillary Rodham Clinton’s frustrated backstage efforts to recalibrate her campaign to blunt Barack Obama’s momentum, for example. And there’s a devastating look at how John Edwards and the late Elizabeth Edwards functioned behind the image they projected. If thorough balance were really the name of the game here, then HBO could have made “Game Change” into a miniseries, of which Palin’s travails would have been but one night’s episode.

But they didn’t, so it’s not, so here we go, off our rockers once again.

Game Change

(two hours) airs Saturday
at 9 p.m. on HBO.

More TV content

Show more
 
Read what others are saying

    Top 10 books of the year