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Game Change (2012)

by Charles Beall

There is a moment in the new HBO film Game Change that is particularly striking.  Upon delivering his concession speech after his loss to Barack Obama, John McCain fades into the spotlight amongst the growing chants of “Sarah!  Sarah!”  Woody Harrelson, who portrays McCain’s chief strategist Steve Schmidt, watches in horror as his “game change” becomes an uncontrollable entity, a force in the Republican Party that, as of 2012, is leading to its ultimate demise.

Game Change is riveting theater, a look into an historic moment in our nation’s history.  Lagging in the polls behind “celebrity” Barack Obama, John McCain (Ed Harris) needed something to shake the campaign up.  The economy was tanking after eight years of a Republican president, and like it or not, McCain was tethered to the sinking ship that was the Bush administration.  The film kicks in around August 2008, when sitting with his advisors, McCain decides to go for broke and make a “bold choice” in a vice presidential running mate selection.  McCain wants Joe Lieberman, the Independent Democrat Senator of Connecticut; the campaign wants someone who is not a white male elitist.  The problem is that it is getting down to convention time, and while the other choices for Vice President have been vetted, they are still unacceptable.  Enter the game change.

After five (five!) days of vetting (in what is usually a multi-week process), McCain and his advisors agree on the unknown Governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin (a brilliant Julianne Moore).  She is attractive, insanely popular in her home state, and a solid conservative who balances out McCain’s more liberal political positions.  She lights up a crowd and can bridge the enthusiasm gap that Republicans are lacking when it comes to Obama and the Democrats.

But looks can be deceiving.  Palin, who with much more time and experience, could have been a decent candidate is thrust into the national spotlight without so much as any experience (or knowledge) to be one heartbeat away from the most powerful office in the world.  The stress of the campaign begins to fracture Palin, pushing her to the verge of a nervous breakdown.  She begins to worry about her standing in Alaska, rather than the national campaign and the mission ahead.  Her advisors quit, and the campaign (particularly Schmidt) begins to wonder what they have gotten themselves into.

There is a turning point in the campaign, however, that snaps Palin out of her funk.  Instead of teaching her everything about everything (and there was a lot she didn’t know), they campaign begins to feed her talking points.  She gains her confidence back and a transformation begins.  Sarah Palin becomes the celebrity that Obama is; she becomes an uncontrollable lightning rod that feeds off of the masses (which, I must say, Obama is not).  Sarah Palin morphs from a respected governor into “Sarah Palin”, the woman who is around today.

Game Change is quite a fascinating character study.  Moore’s performance is incredibly restrained.  For someone who has been lampooned constantly, Moore brings humanity back to Sarah Palin.  Her performance reminds us that Palin was a person who has feelings, who loves her family, and cares for her country…but then we see the morph of someone who is ultimately corrupted by our current American political system.  There is a sad scene where Moore’s Palin is watching Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin on SNL; she can’t believe that they are laughing at her, not with her.  The look on her face is heartbreaking, because she is realizing that she is not being taken seriously, but rather as a national embarrassment.  This is a turning point, because she then begins to famously “go rogue” and do things her own way.  She in a way becomes a Frankenstein Republican, the product of a desperate campaign and the victim of a vicious sense of entitlement.

Game Change is not a perfect film, but it is indeed an entertaining one.  The performances and fireworks between Moore and Harrelson are particularly noteworthy and deserving of Emmy consideration, as is Harris’ subtle and enjoyable McCain.  With that said, political junkie or not, Game Change is a very entertaining, cautious tale about the dangerous road our democracy is headed down.

Grade B+