When it came out in January 2010, the book Game Change by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin shook up with political scene with its behind-the-scene view of the 2008 campaign, and the off-the-record, non-cited interviews that act as the source for the book. Game Change, the movie set to premiere on HBO on March 10th, has already been stirring -up heated emotions on both sides of the aisle.
While the book examined the Republican and Democratic nominations in addition to the general election, the film chose to focus on the Republican campaign ticket of John McCain and Sarah Palin. When asked why he focused solely on this side of the story, the president of HBO films, Len Amato, acknowledge that the Palin story “had all the elements that make a great story: a compact time frame, colorful characters, an underdog story."
The film is, unsurprisingly, likely to polarize opinion. Yet regardless of your political affiliations, what should be undisputed is the high calibre of the actor’s performances, most notably Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin, Woody Harrelson as campaign strategist Steve Schmidt, and Sarah Paulson as political commentator Nicolle Wallace. Moore nails the character of Palin, and portrays her not as the vetted pundit or political caricature that we are used to seeing, but rather as an actual person. There are moments during the film, though rare, in which you feel the tang of sympathy for this governor from Alaska thrust into the national spotlight, especially when you see Palin watching the Saturday Night Live skits by Tina Fey, and in the guilt Palin feels after the disastrous CBS Katie Couric interview. Moore nails Palin’s transformation into a more confident – and more dangerous – player. The Nicolle Wallace story, which was present but perhaps understated in the book, shone in the film, where we see her evolution from a supporterd to her patience with Palin running out. At the end of the film, it is revealed that Wallace could not bring herself to vote, a fact that was not included in the book but came out through the journalistic work and connections for Danny Strong, the film’s screenwriter.
Halperin argues that both the book and the film are as “balanced, accurate, and fair portrayal of Sarah Palin in those 60 days as anything that’s been done." Not surprisingly, Palin fans actively disagree. Palin's PAC, SarahPAC, released Game Change We Can Believe In, a mock trailer which strikes back at the film and, in an attached statement, claimed that the screen writer “lapsed into a tired routine of manipulating facts."
Yet the film, realizing the potential backlash, manages to deftly use documented evidence to show Palin’s lack of knowledge especially in foreign affairs.
The now infamous Kaite Couric and Charlie Gibson interviews are central parts of the film. The film also leverages other key facets of the Palin character that are hardly radical or uncommon claims. It hammers home the mistake made (which weighs heavy on Schmidt) in rushing the vetting of Palin in a five-day process. It shows Palin’s habit of lying about past events, or manipulating the truth, much to the chargrin of senior strategists. One prominent example is Palin’s distortion of her husband’s involvement with the Alaskan Independence Party.
As the supposed "game changing" character, Palin is depicted as nervous and vulnerable at times, and an increasingly unstable politician who both refuses to act as, and complains of being, a puppet, yet at the same time laps up the national spotlight and realizes her celebrity and power.
The film is likely to be seen as liberal Hollywood bias by Republicans, and it adds another log to the fire of the Democratic claim of the idiocy of Sarah Palin. Game Change acts as a further confirmation of the mistake of picking Palin (a fact that Schmidt admits inthe film), and the visualization of the inside actions of the McCain campaign, and the character of Palin, drive home the centrality of this mistake, and the consequences that would have resulted had McCain won in 2008. If there’s one thing that the 2012 candidates can learn from Game Change, it is this: it you try and vet your running mate in five days, you’re lining yourself up for disaster.