Game Change is HBO’s latest offering, a look at the 2008 election. It features Ed Harris as John McCain, Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin and Woody Harrelson as Steve Schmidt, a Republican strategist and kingmaker. The movie details how McCain chose Palin, how his staff became disillusioned with the pick, and how Palin struggled to live up to her role as a game changer while not letting “John down,” a fear she confides to Schmidt.
Generally, I try to steer clear of politics in my blog. In modern US life, political allegiance is the great divider — disagree with a position and you virtually guarantee alienating 48% of the nation. But this movie interested me not simply because it detailed the inner workings of a failed presidential campaign. It also seeks to illuminate the human frailties that allowed such a failure to occur.
In Game Change‘s opening, Senator John McCain brings Republican strategist Steve Schmidt into the campaign. No sooner has Schmidt arrived than the pollsters reveal the grim truth: unless McCain closes the “gender gap” between himself and female voters, he cannot hope to become President of the United States.
These early sequences are a crucial examination of John McCain. We learn of his strong friendship with Joe Lieberman as the two men sit, giggling like schoolboys at a YouTube video chronicling John Edward’s boundless vanity. Yet Lieberman is derided by McCain’s advisers as pro-life and a Jew. (Not to mention Al Gore’s former running mate and rather goofy-looking.) According to those advisers, if McCain wants to be president, he needs to choose a game changer as vice-president. And McCain, like a dissolute gambler, proves unable to resist the dare. In the moment that matters, he cares about nothing but proving his own label as a maverick. So he vows he WILL choose a game changer — a female — if his team can vet such a woman in a very short time.
Naturally, things go wrong. Palin proves far out of her depth on the national stage. As one character observes, “It’s not that she doesn’t know the answers. It’s that she doesn’t understand the questions.”
I liked the movie’s struggle to document what happened without assigning meaning from on high, if you catch my drift. Schmidt (Harrelson) seems justifiably incensed that a “real American hero” like John McCain is being ignored in favor of Obama, “a man with no accomplishments.” At the same time, Schmidt quickly realizes how terribly the truncated vetting process failed McCain’s campaign. Ed Harris is, as usual, quietly amazing in his ability to channel John McCain. And Julianne Moore is perfectly balanced in her turn as Sarah Palin. Palin isn’t presented as a complex character, full of nuances and deep water. Quite the opposite. In Game Change, Palin is simple enough to be a Holy Fool, or at least an unholy one.
Portrayed as a devoted mother and uncomplicated local politician, we see Palin defend her pregnant teen against adult comedians and heed her husband Todd’s surprisingly on-target advice. We watch her bask in the praise of Fox News’s talking heads, only to be quietly shattered by Tina Fey’s impersonation . (“I can see Russia from my house!”) But Palin never weeps, never openly betrays her inner despair. And that is Julianne Moore’s achievement, so reveal so much by often revealing nothing at all.