Written PostJosh Reviews HBO’s Adaptation of Game Change

Josh Reviews HBO’s Adaptation of Game Change

Back in 2008, Jay Roach directed the excellent HBO movie Recount, which covered the incredible-but-true contested 2000 Presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore.  (I wrote briefly about Recount here.)  Just a few weeks ago, HBO premiered another political film directed by Mr. Roach: Game Change, an adaptation of the book by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin about the 2008 Presidential election.

The film is excellent.  I’m a junkie for political films and documentaries, and I was absolutely gripped by Game Change. Mr. Roach and writer Danny Strong (who also wrote Recount) are able to bring the ins and outs of the political maneuverings of a campaign to life, mostly by focusing (as did Mr. Heilemann and Mr. Halperin) on the outsize characters involved.

The huge change that Mr. Roach and Mr. Strong made, in their adaptation, was to focus their film almost exclusively on the McCain/Palin side — specifically on the story of Sarah Palin.  Whereas the book Game Change also spent a huge amount of time detailing the Obama campaign and the fierce primary battle between Mr. Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, the film Game Change spends almost zero time with the Democrats.  Because the picture that the film paints of Sarah Palin is an extremely negative one, that unfortunately results in Game Change’s feeling totally lopsided to me.  I loved that Recount was balanced between the Democrat and Republican sides, constantly shifting viewpoints from one campaign team to the other.  Game Change misses that.  While I understand narratively the reason for focusing on Ms. Palin — she’s without question the most fascinating figure from the campaign, and there was clearly enough story about her alone to fill up a two-hour movie — I can see this film being off-putting to anyone with a Republican viewpoint.

It’s hard to separate politics from one’s thoughts about Game Change, because Ms. Palin is such a polarizing figure.  Those who love her will dismiss this film as character assassination.  Those who hate her will see this film as proof that they were right.  I don’t believe this film will change many minds.

Certainly, the notion that the Sarah Palin presented in this film might have been one heart-beat away from the Presidency is horrifying.  The main story-arc of the film is the way that the key members of John McCain’s campaign, particularly Mr. McCain’s chief campaign strategist Steve Schmidt and senior campaign advisor Nicolle Wallace, became convinced that Ms. Palin was shockingly ignorant and potentially dangerous.  For the most part, I was familiar with the events covered by the film so wasn’t terribly stunned by any of the plot developments.  But one thing that I’d never heard or read about before was particularly staggering: the revelation that Ms. Palin only performed as well as she did in the Vice-Presidential Candidate debate with Joe Biden because she had memorized all of her answers beforehand.  (Characters in the film repeatedly refer to Ms. Palin as “the best actor in American politics.”)  If true, the thought is staggering.

And, of course, that’s the real question, isn’t it?  Is it true?  Both Ms. Palin and John McCain have claimed that Ms. Palin’s depiction in the book and the film are totally false.  What’s striking, though, is that Steve Schmidt — and remember, he is a key REPUBLICAN player — has supported the story told in the film.  “I think it was very accurate,” Schmidt has said.  “For all of us in the campaign, it really rang true.”  (Click here for more.)  Nicole Wallace, similarly, has said that the film was “true enough to make me squirm.”  (Click here for more.)  These are striking statements of support for the veracity of the film.

I guess I should devote at least a paragraph to the actual film itself, right?  I adored Woody Harrelson as Steve Schmidt — Mr. Harrelson is terrific in the film, a strong central character for the story to be balanced upon.  He presents Schmidt as someone fiercely ambitious and determined to win, but also rational and honest and someone who becomes growingly horrified at the repercussions of the choice of Sarah Palin.  Julianne Moore plays Sarah Palin, and it’s an astonishing transformation.  Enormous credit must go to the hair, make-up, and costuming departments on the film because they make Ms. Moore look EXACTLY, and I mean EXACTLY, like Sarah Palin.  It’s astonishing.  There are a few moments when Ms. Moore’s voice felt a bit off to me, but also some moments when she absolutely nailed Ms. Palin’s unique voice and inflections.  I can’t say that Moore’s Palin feels completely like a three-dimensionalized character, but she is far more of a human being than Tina Fey’s famous (and deservedly so, for it’s amazing) impression of her.  Ed Harris is absolutely dynamite as Senator John McCain.  He also is made-up to look just like Mr. McCain, and I loved his interpretation of the Senator.  I will say that Mr. McCain comes off as something of a saint in the film, crusty but honorable, so anyone who thinks that Mr. Roach and co. were just out to trash Republicans should look at his character and perhaps reconsider.  Sarah Paulson was the best thing about Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (and she was also dynamite in her one, haunting scene in Serenity), and she’s terrific as Nicole Wallace.  Ron Livingston (Band of Brothers, Office Space) and Peter MacNicol also shine as key McCain campaign advisors Mark Wallace and Rick Davis.

I enjoyed Game Change. I think it’s an entertaining and challenging film.  These sorts of films, when successful, always inspire me to do my own reading and research to try to learn more about what really happened.  While I think it’s important to accept that not every single moment in Game Change might be 100% accurate to what happened, I am reasonably satisfied that the major narrative thrusts of the film are true.  (Others may disagree.  I am certainly no expert, nor was I there.)  But that the film meets a basic criteria of veracity is very important for me.  That Game Change can do so while also being relentlessly entertaining is the mark, for me, of a successful film.  I think I preferred Recount, mostly because that film split the focus between the Republicans and the Democratic sides, but that doesn’t mean that Game Change isn’t worth your time.