Friday, March 23, 2012

TV Movie Review: Game Change

Game Change *** ½
Directed by: Jay Roach.
Written by: Danny Strong based on the book by Mark Halperin & John Heilemann.
Starring: Julianne Moore (Sarah Palin), Woody Harrelson (Steve Schmidt), Ed Harris (John McCain), Peter MacNicol (Rick Davis), Jamey Sheridan (Mark Salter), Sarah Paulson (Nicolle Wallace), Ron Livingston (Mark Wallace), David Barry Gray (Todd Palin), Larry Sullivan (Chris Edwards), Mikal Evans (Bexie Nobles), Colby French (Tucker Eskew), Bruce Altman (Fred Davis), Spencer Garrett (Steve Biegun), Brian Howe (Randy Scheunemann), John Rothman (A.B. Culvahouse), Austin Pendleton (Senator Joe Lieberman).

No one is neutral when it comes to Sarah Palin. You either admire her as a straight-talking, down to earth hockey mom and political maverick, or think she’s a dangerously ignorant woman who has no idea what she’s talking about. The best thing about Game Change, which may well turn out to be the best made for TV movie of the year, is that (despite what Fox News says) it is neither a hit piece, trying to make you hate Palin, nor is it a love letter to the woman. You will almost certainly leave Game Change feeling the same way about Palin as you did when the movie started – love her or hate her – but if you watch the movie with an open mind, you may just feel a little bit of sympathy for her.
The movie opens with the McCain campaign in trouble. Barack Obama has become more than a political candidate – but a genuine celebrity. People absolutely love him, and don’t really care about his lack of experience. McCain (Ed Harris), a professional politician for decades, cannot understand how he is losing by so much to Obama. His campaign manager, Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson) thinks they need a game change – something to counteract Obama’s momentum. McCain wanted to have Joe Lieberman – a former Democrat, now an Independent, as his running mate but he won’t do them any good in trying to beat Obama. Neither with Tim Pawlenty or Chris Christie or any of the other Republicans who everyone thinks he should choose from. They want something BIG – and Schmidt seems to thinks he has found it in the newly elected Governor of Alaska – Sarah Palin. The Republican base will love her – which McCain needs to keep them happy – but she is also pretty, charming and funny – not to mention a woman, which may help to win over some female voters, already mad that Hilary Clinton lost to Obama in the Democratic primaries. So, they decide on Palin, but she needs to be vetted – a process that normally takes months, but they only have 5 days. They think all that doesn’t matter, and go ahead with her. But Palin is more than they bargained for – she has no idea about foreign policy, and dangerously little knowledge of domestic policy. Yet, she is confident beyond what knowledge base she does have – she insists on doing things her own way. Not only that, but she will not listen to any of her handlers – she sometimes goes nearly catatonic and shuts out everything around her. She’s a maverick all right.
Most of the major facts in the movie are not really in conflict – Palin really did cite seeing Russia from Alaska as part of her Foreign Policy experience, the infamous Katie Couric interview was not an example of “Gotcha” journalism, but a fair interview that exposed Palin’s lack of knowledge. It also shows just how charming Palin can be – how good she is at speaking, even if she has no idea what she’s talking about, she’s charming when doing it.
Julianne Moore delivers an amazing performance as Palin – she goes deeper than Tina Fey’s spot on impression on SNL that year, to show a woman who is confident she can do anything, who gets in way over her head, and for a while cannot handle it. You feel sympathy for her when she is simply a woman in over her head, struggling to stay afloat. When people take shots at her daughter Bristol – who whatever you think about her, was a pregnant teenager, which would be hard enough without a National spotlight on her – or on her disabled son Trig was inexcusable. But as she struggles to stay afloat, and she because more and more famous, and gets more and more adoring fans, who do not care about her shortcomings, she becomes something of a political monster – she begins to think that she is the real star of the campaign – because in essence, she is – and starts to think she can call all the shots. No one, not Schmidt, not even McCain, can control her.
Woody Harrelson deserves a great deal of credit for his performance as well – he is a smart political mind, who wanted a game change, and got it, but had no idea of the can of worms he was going to open. Ed Harris makes McCain into a very sympathetic man – a man of principle, who loses them in his quest to become President, and doesn’t see that until it’s too late. Late in the campaign, he laments that this was not the campaign he wanted to run – the attacks on Barack Obama, that had become racially motivated and hate filled, shocked him. The other key performance is by Sarah Paulson, as the McCain staffer assigned to be Palin’s handler, who cannot believe what she has to work with.
Directed by Jay Roach, who started making comedies like Austin Powers and Meet the Parents, but has recently moved to HBO to make political films like this, and Recount, from a few years ago. This is an intelligent, well-acted, well written and well directed film. In years past, this could have easily been a theatrical movie, but now, sadly, we know very few people would go see it. So HBO fills the void, and has made a wonderful political drama. I’m sad that this movie had to be made for HBO – but I am happy that it got made it all. For political junkies, Game Change is a must see.

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