Review: Game Change

Dealing with the 2008 American election, and in particular the Republican campaign as Presidential nominee John McCain (Ed Harris) and his chief strategists Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson), Rick Davis (Peter MacNicol), Mark Salter (Jamey Sheridan) and Nicole Wallace (Sarah Paulson) are looking at potential running mates. Schmidt, sensing that McCain needs someone to help counteract Democratic nominee Barack Obama’s ‘rock star’-like charisma, comes across a then obscure Alaskan Governor named Sarah Palin (Julianne Moore). Her ‘hockey mom’ persona and pleasant aesthetic seem like they are the perfect fit. Unfortunately, the vetting process is sped up in order to change the game as soon as possible, and it ends up biting them in the bum. Her homespun charm makes her popular with <cough> Average Joe plumbers <cough> who buy into the ‘hockey mom’ schtick, but when it comes to more serious issues, she is far less assured. Palin proves to be, at best, woefully unprepared, and soon finds herself out of her depth when quizzed on the economy and especially foreign policy, constantly being tripped up in interviews (including the infamous Katie Couric interview where she can’t even name one daily newspaper she reads). The attempts by Schmidt and in particular Wallace to bring Palin up to speed on important issues and policies in such a short time merely makes her dizzy and emotionally fragile. And then she ‘goes rogue’, not wanting to toe the party line with the more moderate McCain, who has all but ignored her and left her for Schmidt and Wallace to handle. She also seems to let the fan adoration go to her head a little. Schmidt and Wallace become gravely concerned that with an elderly presidential candidate with health issues in the past, the leader of the free world could end up being a ‘hockey mom’ with limited knowledge and  experience and an undesirable temperament. Austin Pendleton has a cameo as Libertarian pollie Joe Lieberman, whilst other politicians are seen in news footage.

Even here in Australia, a lot of left-wingers (and probably even some right-wingers) tended to find Sarah Palin a bit of a joke. She seemed stupid, to be honest, and she sure as hell sounded stupid. I think it’s partly that dopey-sounding accent and seemingly phony, ‘chipper’ demeanour, which always rubbed me the wrong way. I’m talking “Fargo”-levels of irritation here. Basically, I (as a proud- but not loony- lefty, for full disclosure) found her annoying and was happy to laugh along with Tina Fey’s (dead-on) “SNL” parody and the like. I just wanted to get the bias and preconceptions out of the way.

This very solid 2012 TV movie from director Jay Roach (“Meet the Parents” and the “Austin Powers” series) and writer Danny Strong has been attacked by some on the Right in the US for painting an inaccurate and unsympathetic portrait of the former Alaskan Governor and former Republican VP nominee. Sarah Palin herself and indeed John McCain are among the complainants of the film. Having now watched the film for myself, not only do I believe that the film is at least 70% favourable towards Palin (I’m probably not equipped enough to speak on the accuracy, but some of the real-life figures depicted in the film apparently say it’s fairly accurate, including Steve Schmidt, who may or may not have an axe to grind), but I kinda felt some sympathy for the poor gal. I no longer think she’s a moron, actually.

Based on this film, I’d wager she’d have to be pretty smart to be a State Governor (and bouts of stress-related catatonia are probably not likely, either), and if anything, she was simply not ready and perhaps not right to head to Washington. As Alaskan Governor, it was not essential that she know anything about Iraq, Iran, the Head of State in England, or the difference between North and South Korea. It’d be nice if she knew all that, but really, it’s not all that much relevant for her to know this sort of stuff than it is for the average American. So, although she was not nearly as polished or experienced as a potential VP should be, I do not believe Sarah Palin to be a moron. She’s a perfectly average American, and I’m sure there’s many Americans who think Queen Elizabeth leads the Government over there (Schmidt apparently confirms this one as true-to-life, by the way). If anything, it’s more damning of the average American, who probably doesn’t know a lot of this stuff off-hand, either, especially stuff outside of America.

Instead, the blame for the Sarah Palin debacle should largely fall at the feet of the idiots who chose her as the Republican VP candidate without proper questioning of her, and without enough preparation. Everything was rushed, and she ended up in over her head, and this film shows it time and time again. Sure, she shows some harpy-like tendencies (as well as self-absorption and childish petulance) in the ‘going rogue’ section of the film (which is a bit overplayed and the weakest aspect of the film) where she seems drunk on fame and otherwise weary and irritable. Sure she had my jaw dropping her when she seems to suggest that her own polling in Alaska is more important than anything at the National level like, I dunno, the McCain campaign! (Is that true? I haven’t seen anything to the contrary, but wow! Talk about myopic and out of her depth!). But by and large, I don’t think all of this was Palin’s fault and I don’t think Roach and Strong do, either. I don’t agree with her politics and I still find her annoying (and not the sharpest tool in the shed), but I don’t think she gets all of the blame here and I think this film is a pretty fair assessment of her. Having a Presidential candidate who was so old people were worried about his longevity, for me, was the bigger mistake in all of this.

So when the film brings up the whole ‘I can see Russia from my house!’ bit, I don’t think the film is being unfair. In fact, it clears up a common misconception about that statement: It came from the Tina Fey impersonation, after Palin made a similar but not exact quote. Having said that, Palin’s statement is still indicative of her inexperience and ill-fit for the job of VP, because the statement she makes actually doesn’t quite add up to anything with any weight or insight as it relates to the question she is asked. The reason why it’s so embarrassing and a little funny, is because it’s such an empty, dopey and- somewhat typically for an American- ethnocentric comment to make. A hopeful VP (or any Washington pollie, for that matter) should come up with something far more substantial than ‘They're our next-door neighbours, and you can actually see Russia from land, here, in Alaska’. Personally, I think the Katie Couric interview was far more damning of Palin (but once again, moreso the people who thought she was equipped for the position of VP nominee) because it showed that she was extremely ill-read. Jesus, woman, name one newspaper. Just one! I know her defenders will say it was a ‘Gotcha!’ moment unfair to Palin, but I’m sorry, she really should’ve handled that one better. It was scary stuff.

Steve Schmidt (played by a very fine Woody Harrelson), Team McCain’s head strategist who essentially came up with Palin’s name when discussing possible VP, and GOP strategist Nicole Wallace (Sarah Paulson), probably realise the mistake in Palin’s selection, but more importantly, Schmidt’s dunderhead decision in not discussing policy matters with Palin before selecting her, thinking her charisma, personality, and relatable ‘story’ were all that was necessary. It wasn’t a bad idea inherently to go for someone with charm and charisma to balance McCain against the charismatic ‘rock star’ candidate on the left, Barack Obama. Unfortunately, the rock star on the left was also a highly intelligent constitutional law professor. It could’ve been worse, though, Steve. Imagine if McCain had won and died soon after. I also don’t think the film is being unfair when Palin is seen taking world history and geography lessons, and taking down notes about simple facts on Germany. That doesn’t make her stupid, just ill-prepared and probably wrong for the gig. Besides, if you’re gonna teach her the difficult stuff, you need to first put it in context with all the basic stuff first, so that for me isn’t suggesting she’s stupid at all. It’s probably what really happened. I do have to wonder, though, if her confusion over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the role of Saddam Hussein are fabrications or at least exaggerations here. I think Palin is more of an ‘Average Joe’ than she is a Washington pollie, but she’s also a State Governor, so I find it a bit of a stretch that she’d be that ill-informed. Then again, watch the idiots interviewed on the streets on the Jay Leno show, who seem to know even less than Palin, so perhaps it’s not far off the mark. Besides, it’s pretty common knowledge that a lot of Americans mistakenly believed Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11 (They’re called Republicans, I believe? Oh, calm down, I’m allowed one smart arse remark). And if you’re getting all of these facts and figures and speeches fed to you by advisers like Palin is shown to be here, it’s kinda like when I was doing my HSC and trying to learn stuff in the last few days that I really should’ve spent the whole year learning. Everything has a tendency to get jumbled and it’ll be of no use to you (Never cram, kids. At the very best case scenario, remembering stuff isn’t the same as learning it). So I can kinda understand how Palin got flustered and frustrated with all of that, it doesn’t make her particularly dumb. Dangerous, perhaps (and that’s why you and I will likely never become someone with such national/international importance or responsibility) and a bad candidate, but not dumb. If given more time to properly learn and digest everything that Schmidt, Wallace, etc. were feeding her, I reckon she would’ve done better. The film makes it clear that there was a lot of stuff being thrown at her in such a short time, and Schmidt in particular seems to realise a lot of the blame for that is his.

As for the film’s merits (Yeah, better not forget that this is a film review, not a political rant), it’s pretty solid and interesting stuff, particularly if you have an interest in American politics. It’s also mostly very well-acted, particularly by Woody Harrelson, and especially Ed Harris as John McCain, who is probably seen as important to this film as he was to the media in the election. That is to say, less important than Palin (Though, this film doesn’t deal with Obama all that much, unlike the media’s love affair with the guy, which wasn’t limited to the US either). Harris’ voice is a lot lower than the real McCain (and I doubt he swore quite as much as Harris does here), but I’m surprised that with a grey wig and some contact lenses, just how convincing a likeness he makes for McCain (He overdoes the awkward ‘old man’ posture, though). More importantly, he just gives a damn fine performance that actually helps in making McCain the most sympathetic character in the film. I, from my distant, Australian POV, always found McCain pretty decent and well-meaning, for a right-winger, and not as prone to the dirtier political tactics out there. I also appreciate that he’s a former military guy who has seen and endured torture and as a result does not support it. In that regard he’s a rarity among Republicans. The film makes it perfectly clear that most of that responsibility went to Palin, who is seen as having no problem throwing bombs whatsoever. The film definitely goes a long way to showing that McCain really didn’t want the debate to go down into the gutter like that, and from what I saw of the campaign on TV back in ’08, it holds pretty true.

The weak link in the cast, is unfortunately Julianne Moore, but only slightly. At times, she looks remarkably like the real Palin, in fact, moreso than Palin’s “SNL” portrayer Tina Fey. The integration of Moore’s Palin into real-life news footage and interviews (ala “Forrest Gump”) was a masterstroke and is almost seamless to my eyes. Unfortunately, she doesn’t get the voice or accent right (she barely changes her own voice and only intermittently tries for the accent), and showing the “SNL” clip during the film only amplifies how Fey pretty much nailed the voice and accent. In fact, showing the “SNL” footage does more damage than good. Yes, it brings up the misconception about the ‘Russia’ quote, but it’s also damn funny, and I found myself still laughing at it, whilst Moore as Palin is trying to get our sympathy. It was not a wise decision, in my view, to include that footage (I also think someone with a naturally higher voice like Megan Mullally would’ve been a better casting choice than Moore).

Overall, no matter what you think of Palin or even McCain, this TV movie seems to do a pretty accurate job in getting if not every fact correct, probably most of them, and certainly gives you an accurate sense of the spirit of what went on in ’08. It’s nothing earth-shattering, but it’s an interesting watch for those inclined. For me, it was also pretty informative, as it showed Palin to be more unsuited to her hopeful job than outright stupid. I even felt a bit of sympathy for the now occasional Fox News contributor. A little (Though even now in 2012, she apparently wants Mitt Romney to attack Obama on the Rev. Wright and Bill Ayers stuff that only she and Sean Hannity give a crap about. How’d goin’ ‘rogue’ work for you last time, Sarah from Alaska?).

Rating: B-


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