WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2012. With the 2022 midterm elections now concluded, I thought it would be fun to revisit this one.
It will be interesting to see what people think of “Game Change,” assuming of course they can get past their own political prejudices while watching it. We have long since made up our minds about the former Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin and are either for or against her, but this HBO movie offers a more intimate look at her life which you won’t find on any episode of “Saturday Night Live.” Then again, this movie is not all about her, and it deals more specifically with how people are selected to become national leaders. While you may think it’s the Presidential candidate who makes the final decisions, that is not always the case.
“Game Change” opens with a scene from a “60 Minutes” interview Cooper Anderson did with John McCain’s chief campaign strategist, Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson), after the Presidential campaign ended in which he asks Schmidt if he regretted choosing Palin as McCain’s running mate. The look on his face is perplexing as if he wants to say yes, or maybe he is instead looking for a better answer so he can seem more thoughtful. Either way, we don’t find out his answer until the end, but we wonder about this question throughout.
Schmidt is seen as reluctant to join McCain’s Presidential campaign, but his respect for McCain eventually makes him a chief participant. But after McCain wins the Republican nomination, a bigger problem looms; the politicians he is considering for his running mate won’t help him overcome the excitement Americans have for Barack Obama. This leads his political advisers Rick Davis (Peter MacNicol) and Mark Salter (Jamey Sheridan) to suggest Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin who they see as a game changer. Even though Palin has not been Governor for very long, they believe choosing her will enhance McCain’s image as a political maverick. Sure enough, Palin energizes McCain’s campaign in a way few others could with her strong presence and conviction of purpose. But when it comes to world and political affairs, that’s where everyone, including Palin, comes to develop a severe case of anxiety.
Now I know Plain herself has made it clear that she has no interest in watching “Game Change,” but she is actually portrayed here with a lot of empathy. As played by Julianne Moore, Palin is sincere in her efforts in wanting to help McCain win the Presidency and is shown to be a loving mother and wife. Upon being introduced to the world, Palin becomes overwhelmed with the negative press thrown in her direction to where she’s not sure how to deal with it. There are scenes where she watches helplessly as Tina Fey does an impersonation of her on “Saturday Night Live,” and you can’t help but feel for her even if it made for some great comedy.
Speaking of Fey, after watching her do a flawless imitation of Palin, it seemed insane for anyone else to try and play Palin in a movie or skit (did you see Andy Samberg try to do it?). But Moore never stoops to impersonating Palin here, but instead inhabits her so brilliantly. The whole time we watch Moore in “Game Change,” we never see her acting but instead searching for what drives Palin in this political race and her life. I really felt like I was watching Palin here and not Moore as the actress seems to just float away and has let the former Governor of Alaska take over for her.
As the campaign rolls on, we see Palin rebelling against the advisers who tell her what to say, do, and wear. While part of us wants her to really listen to them, you can’t help but admire her for not wanting to put on an act for the American people. Deep down, we really don’t want to see politicians play us for fools as we always feel we can see right through their act. Would you be ever so willing to compromise the things you believe in just to win political office?
I love how Harrelson embodies Schmidt, a man who’s trying his best to handle a delicate situation which threatens to implode each and every day. Schmidt is a guy who thinks he can handle any problem thrown at him but ends up being confronted by one he cannot control. Seeing Harrelson’s eyes stare like daggers at Palin when she goes rogue is an unforgettable image as Schmidt eventually makes clear this is McCain’s show, not hers.
Ed Harris doesn’t look or sound much like McCain, but that doesn’t matter here. What he does accomplish is making McCain seem like an honorable politician trying to run a campaign which is not full of nastiness like the one George W. Bush ran against him in 2000. Seeing him grimace when his supporters start hating on Obama more intensely, calling him an “Arab” or a “communist,” is a painful sight as he realizes this is not the kind of race he ever wanted to be a part of. Harris is an actor who always delivers the goods, and he certainly doesn’t fail us here.
One performance which stands out here is Sarah Paulson’s as McCain adviser, Nicole Wallace. Paulson gives her role a wonderful complexity as her sincere dedication to McCain’s campaign is severely tested by her utter resentment of Palin. As much as Wallace wants to help Palin do her best, you can see in Wallace’s eyes that she is thinking, “is this the best we can come up with?”
“Game Change” was directed by Jay Roach who also directed the superb HBO movie “Recount” which dealt with the craziness of the 2000 Presidential election. As with that one, he attempts to make “Game Change” a balanced look at a politician and campaign we feel we know everything about already. Whether or not he has succeeded here is hard to tell because America is as politically divisive as it has ever been, and many people have been vocal with their criticisms even before they bothered watching this movie.
Roach show us history as if it were unfolding right in front of us, and he lets get us get all caught up in it. We all know the outcome of this election, but we still cringe when Palin makes mistakes like on the Katie Couric interview. Even if she didn’t have our support during the general election, seeing her suffer through a process which proves to be beyond anyone’s control is painful, and we want to see her overcome obstacles most people don’t get to experience. Regardless of what it is we’re watching we always find ourselves rooting for the underdog. As “Game Change” comes to an end, Roach keeps us on the edge of our seats as we wonder what Palin has up her sleeve next as she has long since proven to the world that she is nobody’s puppet.
Is “Game Change” accurate to what actually happened? It depends on who you ask. Both Palin and McCain have described it as inaccurate and based on a false narrative while Schmidt and Wallace have said it tells the truth and captures the spirit of the campaign. When all is said and done though, I’m not sure I care if it is because most movies “based on a true story” are usually not altogether accurate as dramatic considerations need to be taken into account. In the end, all we can do is hope for a compelling motion picture which holds our attention throughout, and “Game Change” certainly held mine.
Palin should at least be happy that she does not come off as the bad guy here. It’s really her political handlers who come off looking bad by throwing a barely tested Governor into a political minefield which is unforgiving and endlessly vicious. Long before the election ends, the handlers see that their thirst for victory has overcome their better judgment as they picked a celebrity more than a true candidate. This brings me to scariest thing “Game Change” reveals though which is a truth that many of us don’t want to see: that these days the news is nothing more than “entertainment,” and that celebrities seem more entrancing to the public than a thoughtful politician.
* * * ½ out of * * * *