“I’m so glad you’re askin’ me these questions,” Sarah Palin says to Steve Schmidt and Mark Salter, Senator John McCain’s campaign manager and speechwriter, during their initial meeting to discuss making her the Republican vice presidential nominee. “It’s important that you know exactly what you’re getting.”
This comment, made ironic by the complete lack of knowledge the 2008 McCain campaign had of Palin, captures the theme of Game Change, the new HBO film starring Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson, and Ed Harris. Based on Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s eponymous book, Game Change chronicles the McCain campaign’s decision to tap the one-term governor of Alaska for the vice presidential nomination and the ensuing chaos that ultimately contributed to McCain’s downfall.
Many Palin supporters have criticized the film as an untruthful, sexist portrayal of the former governor. Several of her aides have denounced it as fictional, while Meghan McCain characterized it as only “half-real” and bashed Julianne Moore’s acting. Palin herself has chosen largely to ignore the hype, stating, “Being in the good graces of Hollywood’s ‘Team Obama’ isn’t top of my list.”
But the film’s treatment of Palin is, in reality, incredibly fair. Throughout the film, she appears to be a strong, yet tender leader, a good mother, a human figure among political immortals. Julianne Moore is not a caricature in the vein of Tina Fey, but a transcendent actor who assumes all of Palin’s idiosyncrasies in a believable manner, right down to the last missin’ G. Moore shines in Palin’s greatest moments as much as she does in her weakest. Whenever Palin is shown in a less-than-positive light, it is because of an incident we already knew about — the Katie Couric interview or the $150,000 shopping spree. Critics would be hard-pressed to find a single moment where the narrative could be called unfair or sexist because so much of the plot occurred in public view. The McCain and Palin camps can’t rewrite history, as much as they might like to do so.
At her best, the Sarah Palin of Game Change is charismatic, witty, forceful, and well-spoken. At her worst, she withdraws into herself, worrying about her family and her reputation in Alaska to the point of paralyzation. But even when she slips up, the film is quick to spread the blame around. The vetting process for Palin was clearly shoddy, not because of incompetence, but because senior staff wanted so badly for it to work that they skipped obvious questions. When Palin became irascible, it was because the campaign had thrust her into a spotlight for which she simply was not ready. Even Dick Cheney thought her selection was a reckless choice — and as Mark Salter says in the film on election night, “When you lose the moral high ground to Dick Cheney, it’s time to rethink your entire life.”
While Game Change is probably a reasonably accurate fictionalization of the 2008 campaign — its ‘anonymous’ sources are quite obviously Steve Schmidt and Nicole Wallace, among other senior aides — the purpose of the film is to entertain. In a panel at the John F. Kennedy, Jr. Forum last week following the world premiere of the film right here at Harvard, Mark Halperin, John Heilemann, and the president of HBO Films, Len Amato, discussed their decision to focus solely on the Sarah Palin subplot of Halperin and Heilemann’s book. Ultimately, they said, the other storylines didn’t pop as much as this one — the McCain narrative was simply tighter, and perfect for film. The film does not attempt to victimize Sarah Palin. No, it was the persona she herself created — the affable, down-to-earth hockey mom — who became at once a media darling and an object of ridicule and turned the 2008 election on its head, that made her perfect for film portrayal.
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