Game Change (2011), the HBO docufilm on the behind the scenes drama regarding the 2008 McCain-Palin ticket, is far from the left-wing media hatchet job that many have accused it of being. We sympathize with John McCain (Ed Harris) – a Republican whom I admired before the events of fall 2008 – because he is stuck between a rock and a hard place. At the beginning of the film, McCain is polling far behind the rising star Barack Obama. The GOP distrusts McCain; his moderate politics (at least in comparison with the base’s) have put him at a disadvantage. Looking for a miracle, McCain’s campaign strategist Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson) opts for a Hail Mary when selecting the politically green Governor Sarah Palin (Julianne Moore). The logic is that high risk will create high reward and that Palin’s unapologetic, salt-of-the-Earth embodiment of many GOP values will rejuvenate the campaign.
Initially, the rushed plan works (Palin was allegedly screened by McCain’s team in just five days). Palin’s unique charisma – love her or hate her, she’s got it – wins over the base, and that results in monetary and morale momentum for McCain. Yet, Schmidt and the campaign team quickly begin to realize that Palin’s knowledge of foreign policy, geography, and history is grossly inadequate, rendering McCain’s chief attack on Obama – his lack of experience – hypocritical. Once Palin begins her meltdown after botching a series of television interviews, the reluctant McCain’s only option is to take the moral low ground (a point the film’s version of McCain acknowledges) and tap into a fear-inducing populism.
The biggest flaw in Game Change is its realization of Palin. At first, in contrast to the denouncements of her real life counterpart, we empathize with her. She’s being thrown in the deep end, her family is stuck in the middle, and yet her idealism – admittedly misguided from this Democrat’s perspective – is admirable. However, after Palin botches her first interview with Charlie Gibson, the film doesn’t really know how to paint her. Moore’s Palin goes from being despondent and on the verge of a nervous breakdown to being diluted and power hungry. My criticism is not of Moore’s portrayal (she’s phenomenal), nor do I doubt that the real Palin embodied this emotional trajectory. We just never really get an idea of what makes her tick; her motivations are handled ambiguously, and that’s a fault of director Jay Roach (who directed the Austin Powers films (1997-2002) before beginning a political docudrama kick with Recount (2008), also for HBO), the screenwriter, and – potentially – the authors of the book that inspired this film.
Of course, one could object to my objections by arguing that Palin is fucking crazy and that there is no rationale for her irrational behavior. I get that impression regarding Palin sometimes, but I also find myself wondering how much of that is a form of caricature. The biggest complement that I can give Oliver Stone’s George W. Bush biopic W. (2008) is that while I may disagree with Bush Jr. to the point of giving myself a brain aneurism, the film helped me understand why he believed and acted the way he did. Essentially, the film humanized the devil. Game Change tries to give Palin the same treatment, but her motivations remain more elusive than universal healthcare.