HBO’s adaptation of the book Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime chooses to ditch the Hillary, Obama, Edwards and Giuliani elements of the 2008 presidential campaign and instead focus on the woman who captivated the world for five months – Sarah Louise Palin.
John Edwards is probably worthy of his own film one day and until we know the full impact of Obama’s term(s), any re-enactment of his race to president would feel incomplete. So focusing in on Palin is a wise choice by the film-makers. Director Jay Roach and writer Danny Strong showed their skills with the murky world of North American politics to blistering effect in 2008’s Recount which documented the 2000 Bush/Gore/Florida/chads debacle which threatened to derail the nation’s entire judicial reputation.
Palin’s elevation to Republican vice-presidential candidate is of course a well-worn story at this stage. Self-proclaimed “maverick” John McCain needed to bring in a surprise running mate to try and latch on to some of the energy from the Obama juggernaut. He picks the Governor of Alaska – a conservative, pro-life hockey-mom with a lack of experience but a distinctive ability to connect with people. Her initial vetting showed that she ticked a lot of the boxes for what they were looking for and failed to raise any red flags.
So that’s the bit we all know. The real question that faced Game Change is whether they could reveal anything new and not just provide a re-enactment of the key events that defined those six months of Palin-mania.
Biopics all suffer from the same thing. You see the initial reveal of the person and you go, “oh shucks they really look and sound like J. Edgar Hoover/Margaret Thatcher/Marilyn Monroe!”. Once you get over this initial recognition, you’ve got to have a good solid story, plain and simple. And it’s then up to the actors and actresses involved to embody the spirit of the person they are playing, but also add a new intangible element to the part without resorting to ham-fisted impressions.
Julianne Moore’s portrayal of Palin is the thing that has garnered all the copy over the last few months. And as expected from one of Hollywood’s best, she is spot-on at showing the clueless, cocksure ambition that typified Palin’s early weeks. There is a real glint in her eye as McCain reveals her to the world at an Ohio rally, and then a vulnerability as the wheels start to come off in the coming weeks as her campaign team realise just how out of her depth she really is. Moore is likely to make up for her shocking lack of any oscars (four nominations, but no wins) with a spate of awards in the shape of Primetime Emmys and Golden Globes. She gets the impersonation spot-on and in the scenes that aren’t just re-enactments of interviews or stump speeches, she is allowed to really flex her muscles. Watching Julianne Moore’s Sarah Palin sitting in her hotel room transfixed by Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin is a pretty bizarre moment.
Her running-mate, Ed Harris’ John McCain, performs admirably with a relatively limited role. But it’s Woody Harrelson as McCain’s campaign manager Steve Schmidt who really shines in the supporting cast. It was he who OKed the initial decision to bring Palin on board and as the campaign progresses and she makes flub after flub, his belief in the ticket slowly erodes and the discontent between the puppets and the men and women really pulling the strings are revealed.
But Game Change’s biggest problem is that it can’t really escape from simply re-telling a well-known story that is still too fresh in the mind. By all accounts there’s very little fictional embellishment here and while the Palin camp may now be crying foul over scenes showing the tutoring on world economics – “Governor, do you know where Germany is on this map?” – it does just feel like we’re poking fun at a woman who should never have been thrown into the lion’s den in the first place. As she retreats back from her campaign staff you begin to wonder just how close she really came to a psychological episode in those few months. The ultimate realisation that they had one of politics’ finest actresses who would be better suited to just learning off reams of answers is the real “gotcha” moment on show here.
The convention speech and infamous interviews with Katie Couric and Charlie Gibson are all present and correct, but it really does just feels like we’re just going through a checklist of key events that need to be checked off. For a news junkie who got fix after fix from that campaign it makes for an enjoyable enough two hours, but as a contribution to narrative cinema, it is lacks a true maverick quality.
USA / Directed By: Jay Roach / Written By: Danny Strong / Starring: Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson, Ed Harris, Sarah Paulson, Peter MacNicol / 118min / Drama / Original broadcast: 8 March 2012 (HBO US/Canada)