Whatever you think about Sarah Palin, a former Alaska Governor who dramatically rose to her fame during 2008 US presidential election, she has an undeniable star presence which even attracted the attention of her detractors including me. Vividly presenting that aspect through an uncanny portrayal by Julianne Moore, HBO film “Game Change”, which will be released on DVD and Blu-ray in US early in the next month, does an unexpected thing; it treats Palin fairly in its critical but objective view on her story, and it is sometimes quite sympathetic to her difficult circumstance she could not handle well.
The movie, partially based on the book of the same named written by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, is told through the viewpoint of Steve Schmidt(Woody Harrelson), who was the senior campaign strategist and advisor to the 2008 US presidential campaign of Senator John McCain(Ed Harris). Not long after he joins McCain’s campaign, it becomes clear that McCain will be chosen as the Republican presidential candidate for the election, but Schmidt and his co-workers face the rising popularity of Barack Obama, who becomes not only an international political superstar but also the symbol of the change the American People has yearned for.
Schmidt sees that they really need a game changer fresh and new as McCain’s running mate to counterattack Obama’s advance, so they decide to find a female politician who can not only satisfy their people but also draw moderate voters, and that’s how they come to pay attentions to Sarah Palin(Julianne Moore), who was elected as the Governor of Alaska less than two years ago. She looks like everything they are looking for: a young conservative Republican who is a plucky Christian mother to her five children. Although they recognize the risk in choosing someone not thoroughly qualified as a vice president nominee, Schmidt thinks she is the best chance for their win and McCain accepts his opinion, so Palin is quickly brought to them for their clandestine meeting.
Palin instantly accepts the offer, and she certainly does not disappoint them. As soon as she is introduced officially as the vice president candidate, she immediately becomes the focus of the national sensation, and then, as many of you saw on TV, she does a stunning job at the Republican National Convention in 2008 September. Everyone in the McCain campaign exalts to watch Palin galvanizing the convention with as a “Hockey mom”, and it seems they finally get the sure chance to win. Capturing Palin’s mannerisms and speech patterns to the perfection, Julianne Moore is absolutely tour-de-force in one of the best performances in her career, and I could see and understand how Palin thrilled her audiences at that time – how couldn’t they like such a lively woman with spunky folksy charm?
However, the moment of their excitement turns out to be a pretty short one as Schmidt and others realize they have made a big mistake. Although they already know Sarah Palin is very weak on foreign policy, her ignorance is reveled to be almost catastrophic(in case of world history and geography, she is far less knowledgeable than an average South Korean middle school student), and that fatal weakness is exposed to the media while she has interviews with the prominent journalists including Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric. She does not even know the difference between North Korea and South Korea, for Christ’s sake(and she later made a similar mistake after the election).
As a result, she becomes the target of ridicules including those famous SNL sketches by Tina Fey(they incidentally appear in the film, by the way), Palin becomes more incommunicative and distant to the people in the campaign, and that naturally exasperates Schmidt and Nicolle Wallace(Sarah Paulson), the personal assistant assigned to Palin. As their and others’ disillusionment accumulates, Palin shows the weaker and worse sides of hers, and they are at a loss about how to handle her.
The movie rarely goes deep inside Palin’s state of mind during the campaign, but it looks at her hard times with considerable degrees of empathy, and she comes to us as an ordinary woman stuck in a very tricky job way over her head. After all, being a vice president nominee is something not everyone can endure well under the constant scrutiny of the hungry media, and, while looking at her loving and supporting family standing by her, I wonder whether she could have been happier if she had just stuck to her family and home instead of going rogue on the national level. She tries hard as much as she can, but, unfortunately, she still cannot recognize her incompetence even after lots of mistakes she made. She is a terrific campaigner, but she is not a good politician at all.
Palin looks a little bit like caricature at times in the movie(well, how can’t she look like that if you know about her shocking shallowness on the media?), but Moore seldom loses the human dimensions of her character. Palin can approach to people as a warm, sincere listener, and she loves her family and her country, but she also can be an egoistic and ignorant diva who makes the life of the people working with her quite miserable – especially when she feels really hurt and insulted by how the media makes a fun of her.
For instance, even though it is not necessary at all, she keeps demanding the poll result on her popularity in Alaska as if it were her lucky charm to confirm her that people still like her. Furthermore, after gaining new confidence as “the greatest actress in American political history” thanks to Schmidt’s good idea, she starts behaving as if the campaign were all about her, not McCain, and that brings more headache to Schmidt and others, who is getting sick of her going rogue as the Election Day approaches.
The director Jay Roach previously made HBO TV movie “Recount”(2008), an entertaining movie which was about the absurdity of 2000 US presidential election involving the problematic vote counting in Florida which would affect US far more than anyone expected at the time. Through the rise of Sarah Palin, one of the most ridiculous incidents in the modern American political history, the movie reminds us how it could have more ridiculous and disastrous for US if she had become the vice president, and Danny Strong’s screenplay shrewdly points out that it was not entirely her fault. While desperately looking for a star candidate palatable to the media, McCain and Schmidt made a serious mistake which would further damage the American politics as well as their party, and they dearly paid for that. As Schmidt says at one point, they turned the presidential election into a “bad reality TV show”, and Palin certainly got a lot of publicity and applause as she loved every minute of it. She hates being ridiculed by the media, but, what the hell, she loves her new position as the new influential star of the Republican Party, and she is determined not to go away easily from her spotlight as long as there are her fans out there.
While Julianne Moore has received lots of acclaims along with Best Actress Emmy for her performance, her co-performers also deserve lots of praises. Woody Harrelson is excellent as a diligent hardcore Republican strategist who tries to do his best even at his most frustrating time, and Ed Harris is good as a decent politician with growing doubts and regrets on his gambling with Palin. Sarah Paulson puts considerable feelings and emotions into her thankless supporting role, and she has a tragicomedy moment with Harrelson when Wallace confesses to Schmidt with tears on the Election Day that she could not vote because of the reason both of them know too well.
“Game Change” is a fascinating political comedy/drama which gives us some important insights and lessons through the heated craziness inside 2008 US presidential election. The movie sets its attitude straight and fair to the subject, and you may feel a little sorry about Palin as observing memorable moments surrounding her. I still do not like Palin, but I come to wish she will go gently into obscurity within years, although that is definitely the last thing she wants.
By the way, the Republican Party people do not seem to learn any lesson from their disaster with Palin, so we got a very hilarious sight early in this year thanks to their primary election stuffed with a bunch of their startlingly incompetent and inadequate politicians. Now I wonder whether Jay Roach and his crew at HBO will make a movie about this memorable black horror comedy shown in front of American people – They asked for it, didn’t they?