(Phil Caruso/AP)

Controversy over the HBO film “Game Change” is only escalating as Saturday’s release date draws near. The movie about the 2008 election, which centers on Sarah Palin’s vice presidential candidacy, has Palin’s defenders up in arms over its portrayal of the former Alaska governor.

On Wednesday, her PAC posted a message from aides who finally saw the film, calling it “a series of scenes where the dialogue, locations and participants are invented or rendered unrecognizable for dramatic effect.” Defenders are saying the episodes that question Palin’s intelligence about foreign policy or historical matters are “absolutely untrue.” Julianne Moore meanwhile is winning raves for her depiction of Palin, and many of the reviews focus on her dynamic performance.

But while most the attention and controversy about the film may be centering on the depiction of Palin, the leadership portrayal in the film that interests me most is that of John McCain. It is afterall McCain—advised by Steve Schmidt, his campaign manager—who selected Palin as his running mate, surely the most important decision of his campaign. For any leader, personnel decisions are always crucial, and in this case that’s especially true. Policy positions or campaign tactics are distant seconds to choosing the person who will be a heartbeat away from the presidency.

I have not yet seen the film, but based on the clips HBO has released and reviews from critics who have attended advanced screenings, the movie does not appear to cast McCain’s decision in the most leader-like light. In the dramatic preview, campaign manager Schmidt (played by Woody Harrelson) warns McCain (played by Ed Harris) that “we live in the age of the 24-hour news cycle. We need to create a dynamic moment in this film or we’re dead.” That appears to weigh heavily on the candidate who, in another scene, wears an expression of reluctance as Schmidt tells him the campaign had to start vetting her if she is to be considered.

In another scene, Harris portrays McCain as almost resigned to his fate when he asks his advisers whom they’ve vetted and an aide replies: Romney, Pawlenty and they’re working on Bloomberg. After he’s told he can’t win with any of them, Harrelson-as-Schmidt says, “We desperately need a game-changing pick, and none of these middle-aged white guys are game changers.”

“So find me a woman,” the candidate replies in the film.

With all the controversy surrounding the movie, it’s hard to know exactly what was said in that moment. The book Game Change , by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, emphasizes that McCain wanted the potential “game changer” Joe Lieberman as his running mate until concerns about some of his less conservative views prompted the campaign to flip to Palin. And McCain has recently defended his pick of Palin. Either way, the biggest leadership question in the film, at least in my opinion, is not how well-prepared Sarah Palin was to be president or how much she knew about international affairs. It’s the question of whether John McCain made the most critical choice of his campaign with his gut or with the influence of his advisers.

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