It used to be that a politician had to be a Kennedy to get a juicy, tell-all movie made about them.

On the odd chance that you can't get enough of this year's colorful Republican primaries -- if lurid accusations of Newt Gingrich's 'open marriage' or saucy rumors of Herman Cain's romantic conquests haven't been enough for you -- or if you think all the pizazz went out of the campaign once Michele Bachmann left the race (can anyone else say "Obama is a socialist" with such a winning smile?), then HBO's frothy Game Change, which debuts this Saturday March 10th, may be the remedy for you.

Game Change is pure political soap opera, and in fleeting moments it even makes for compelling drama - though to be fair, Game Change is probably not an accurate view into the behind-the-scenes dynamics of the 2008 McCain campaign, or into the personality of its megawatt star, Sarah Palin.

What the movie is, however, is a gossipy and occasionally colorful look at how much changed -- at least in the world of Republican politics -- when John McCain made the decision to select Sarah Palin as his running mate for the 2008 election.

And as the roiling 2012 campaign continues to make clear: a lot changed from that point forward.


There was an era, seemingly a lifetime ago, when the Republican Party appeared to be the quieter, more straight-laced of the two parties. Most people over 30 remember what that was like, back before Republican officeholders were expected to be celebrities.

Traditional Republican candidates were war veterans and businessmen, successful lawyers, sober Congressmen with dark suits and smiling families, genial chairmen of the local chamber of commerce. Think Mitch Daniels crossed with Phil Mickelson.

They were the type of person you'd want to buy real estate or aftershave from, or to lead your nephew into combat -- but not necessarily build a Broadway show or rock opera around.

That, of course, was before the Palins came to town.

Game Change is HBO's adaptation of the book of the same name about the 2008 Presidential election, penned by journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. Crucially, that book depicted both sides of the 2008 campaign -- dwelling mostly on the epic Democratic Party primary battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, something left out completely from HBO's movie.

That the film's producers -- who include Tom Hanks -- dropped the Clinton-vs.-Obama side of the book altogether has opened Game Change up to legitimate charges of partisanship, as has the film's depiction of Palin as mercurial and unbalanced.

And make no mistake: Game Change depicts Sarah Palin as flighty and temperamental, as a Hollywood-style diva who fires staffers on a whim, and as ignorant of the most basic facts about American history and governance.

Whether this depiction is believable, of course, is another question entirely.

Indeed, viewers will be free to question whether Palin really required briefings on the basic differences between the Afghanistan and Iraq wars (which seems unlikely, given that her son Track was deployed to Iraq), or on the elemental facts of World War II, or that she didn't know what the Federal Reserve does.

Though even Palin's most ardent supporters would hesitate to compare her to William F. Buckley in her eloquence or erudition, Game Change stretches the Palin-as-ignoramus cliche past the point of credibility.

Yet it's important to point out that Game Change also depicts Palin as a caring mother, as passionate and sincere in her faith, and as the kind of charismatic, Capra-esque political star unseen in Republican circles since Ronald Reagan. It also depicts her as innocent of the most ridiculous charges made against her during the 2008 campaign: such as that she was a free-spending clothes horse, or that her baby Trig wasn't even hers.

Game Change also shows how Palin's energetic performances in high-pressure situations rescued the McCain campaign.

Game Change's story is simple. It's August 2008 and the McCain campaign is in trouble. A smooth-talking young Senator named Barack Obama has not only improbably blown past Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party nomination, but is suddenly turning the Presidential race into a lopsided rout.


Top McCain advisor Steve Schmidt, played with warmth and intelligence by Woody Harrelson, decides that the campaign needs to roll the dice and select a 'game changer' as the vice presidential nominee. With the stakes getting higher and the clock ticking, McCain and his inner circle decide that the biggest game-changing move -- outside of selecting Democrat Joe Lieberman as the VP -- would be to select a woman for the ticket.

So with only five days left to vet the potential nominee, McCain's team takes a chance and picks the exciting but little-known Governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin. And thus begins a high-stakes, behind-the-scenes battle waged between Palin and Schmidt as McCain's circle begins to realize exactly how unconventional the feisty governor from Wasilla really is.

Game Change takes viewers through the big moments from Palin's eight weeks as a VP candidate -- from her knockout convention speech (delivered partly after the teleprompter failed), to the muffed interviews with Katie Couric and Charlie Gibson, to her effective debate performance against Joe Biden. We also see Palin dealing with the unimaginable overnight pressures of rescuing the McCain campaign -- all while mothering a son with Down syndrome, a newly pregnant teenage daughter, and a son sent to Iraq.

All this while trying to look fabulous, prevent her emails from getting hacked, and nail the pronunciation of 'Saakashvili.'

As Palin, Julianne Moore attempts the impossible: depicting someone who is already one of the most vivid, well-known personalities on the political scene. Unfortunately, in Game Change Moore's Palin comes across as somehow smaller than Palin seems in real life - not nearly as self-assured or sassy. Moore seems too trapped recreating Palin's accent and mannerisms to give the kind of full-bodied, Betty Davis-style performance the movie probably deserved. Moore plays Palin like an earnest librarian, rather than as a gun-toting Mama grizzly - and it doesn't quite work.


Veteran actor Ed Harris fares better playing John McCain. Harris, as solid a performer as Hollywood has, captures McCain's earthiness and personal integrity - although he misses McCain's delightfully salty humor. In Game Change, McCain comes across as a crusty, honorable veteran trying to keep pace with bewildering changes in our political culture. He's eager to win and to compete according to the new rules of American politics - but not at the cost his own honor or maverick style.

Game Change is actually something of a love-letter to old-school Republican centrists of the McCain variety (the kind currently driving the Romney campaign). How sincere the film is in this regard is open to question; a truly impartial film would've also included the original book's depiction of the Democrat race, and risked airing dirty laundry on the other party's side.

Game Change's biggest problem, however, is its incredibly clunky script - written with all the grace and subtlety of a Super PAC ad. With sparkling lines like "[t]hank you for cutting your mullet, Levi, it looks much better now," or "they're going to think it's a Machiavellian/Jedi power play," Game Change's dialogue sometimes sounds like a bad riff on Raising Arizona. Juvenile quips like "how does Dick Cheney sleep at night with his Darth Vader helmet on?" hardly help matters, either.

Mostly, though, Game Change is a gossipy, sporadically entertaining insider-tell-all look at a political campaign that continues to resonate four years later.

Game Change will likely do what most political movies made by Hollywood's elite power brokers do these days: enrage conservatives, fill liberals with a fleeting sense of superiority, and drive HBO's ratings down while the rest of us watch SportsCenter or Shahs of Sunset.

It's too bad, too. It would've been interesting to watch a frothy version of this film featuring Hillary and Bill, Barack and Michelle. What, there's no drama there?
categories Movies