3 Stars out of 4
You can write it down on paper that HBO knows how to produce smart, engaging political dramas. From Barry Levinson’s You Don’t Know Jack to Richard Loncraine’s The Special Relationship, HBO has sort of transcended our understanding of the “TV movie”.
With Game Change, based on the 2010 book by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, we have ourselves a thoroughly entertaining, dialogue-driven exposé of the events that unfolded in the Republican campaign during the 2008 U.S. Presidential election.
These were… interesting times. Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential candidate, was America’s saviour from the dire straits of the Bush Administration. On the other hand, John McCain, the Republican’s presidential candidate, was just trying to distance himself from that debacle.
It was all a matter of status. Obama offered the hopes of better health care, better education, the end of war, and economic strength. He was a celebrity with that feather in his cap. For the Republicans, it was about overshadowing the Obama praise. Before worrying about what they could offer the American citizens, they had to nurture their need: a good, liberal reputation. The measures the took, the film makes clear, were far from sufficient.
But Game Change is no two-hour lynch of the Republicans. In fact, I haven’t left a movie feeling so much sympathy towards an opposing party in quite some time. In all fairness, my knowledge of American politics is slim, and most of my opinions are influenced, probably like most, by the mass media. The Republicans, thanks to outlets of satire like Youtube and Saturday Night Live, have become caricatures, almost mock-politicians tied to the leash of an Alaskan hockey mom. You betcha – I’m talking about Sarah Palin.
In Game Change, Palin is played by Julianne Moore who not only perfects Palin’s speech and body language, but in general embodies her essence. Beyond the makeup, we don’t sense an act but the real thing. We sense that Moore is Palin, not just playing Palin. This adds to the film’s level grasp of reality, both political and personal. The film chooses to avoid the nitty-gritty details of American politics, and to develop itself under more universal themes, such as greed, egoism, and – especially in the Republican party’s case – human error.
It comes to a great surprise that Game Change was directed by Jay Roach, who made the Austin Powers films. His approach, fittingly, departs from spoof and arrives nicely to well-balanced drama. There’s a lot at stake. Even though we’ve lived through these events, Roach offers a look beyond the podium speeches and TV interviews.
The film, however, doesn’t really veer into Palin’s personal life – and neither did the book. Palin’s family though are present, and there’s a little to do with her teen daughter’s pregnancy. But Roach hones in on Palin’s inner struggle.
Also, I shouldn’t shortchange Senator McCain’s role in Game Change. Played by the great Ed Harris, McCain’s character embodies a profound voice of reason, which most of us wouldn’t expect. The 75 year-old war veteran begins as the main character, only to be sidelined at the introduction of Palin.
From then on, we find him quietly by Palin’s side at campaign speeches or in his office stuck in a deep brood. In Game Change, McCain is intelligent and logical, who had very little to do with the appointing of Palin as Republican candidate for the vice-presidency. He left it up to Schmidt and senior advisor Nicole Wallace (Sarah Paulson), but I’m sure he regrets that.
Game Change follows a familiar arc. It’s no ingenuous political commentary, and I don’t think it wants to be. There’s a certain human quality to it that I admired; it remains affectionately critical of Palin and McCain, never taking any unnecessary jabs or slushing around in the maudlin. Furthermore, it’s blend of fictional and actual footage are very convincing, which creates a key sense of immediacy.
Palin’s campaign run was like a train going off the rails. She started with such high charisma, but when it came to facing domestic and foreign policy, she was clueless. In fact, she didn’t know anything. Palin’s associates forced her to memorize lines before her interviews with FOX and with Katie Couric. They were like history tests. Palin was an actress, but a damn good one. But like many actresses, they fell hard under the bus of the media.
After watching Game Change, the idea that Palin could have been America’s vice president still remained as frightening a thought as it was last week. But Roach brings a whole new understanding to the issue, one without too much ham-handed political commentary. In the end, he also refuses to patch everything up. Because in the final scene, Schmidt dodges Cooper’s million-dollar question: if he could go back in time, would he undo appointing Palin. “Life doesn’t give you do-overs”, he mutters. “Good answer”, I think Palin would say.
Game Change premiered on HBO on March 10, 2012.