There's a certain feeling of surrealism when you see a movie like this and realize that it was actually made for TV. Then again, HBO seems to be pushing the envelope when it comes to telling stories on any screen. Based on the 2010 political non-fiction book of the same name, "Game Change" focuses on the McCain and Palin presidential campaign of 2008. The movie was released in March of 2012, just months away from the last presidential election, and it stars Ed Harris, Woody Harrelson, Sarah Paulson, and - most notably - Julianne Moore in what is probably the most interesting and provocative role of her life.
Aging politician and former war hero John McCain (Ed Harris), with a strong sense of fairness and a desire to do good, reaches out to campaign strategist Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson), who reluctantly takes the job. After a surprising win in a difficult primary, they decide they need to "change the game" by selecting a Vice President who can reach out to key demographics that have yet to choose a side. By chance, one advisor comes across a Youtube video of then-Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska, and suddenly the movie is playing like an inspirational drama. If all politics were shoved aside, this would be the kind of story that ends with an upset at the eleventh hour, and our simple, honest politicians would shift the cynical hearts of American voters to win the election. But this is a story based on a real life, and "Game Change" is less of an inspirational drama than a cautionary tale.
Understand, this is not a documentary. Real footage of interviews and news stories are used, and the movie is closely based on a heavily researched book by two political journalists. There are performances here - incredible performances, in fact - and Julianne Moore looks more like Sarah Palin than Sarah Palin. But this is not a documentary. The primary purpose of any movie is to tell a story in an entertaining way, and let's be honest - your personal politics will have a lot to do with how entertained you are by this one.
The star here is obviously Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin - a woman who is at turns charismatic and, well, catatonic. Although she initially charms the senior members of Senator McCain's campaign staff with her quirky accent and dependable conservative politics, everyone quickly learns just how little she understands about the world. Conversations among the staff reveal that Palin does not understand the difference between North and South Korea, has never heard of the Federal Reserve, and can't find Germany on a world map. In a matter of weeks, McCain's campaign goes from trying to get him elected to the presidency to just crossing their fingers that Palin won't embarrass them on live television. Overcome with the sheer mass of what she doesn't know, Palin begins to completely ignore her advisors, often falling into catatonic states that make the staff question her mental health. In the end, Steve Schmidt helps her survive her debate with Joe Biden by simply having her memorize a list of twenty pre-written answers. According to real-life McCain campaign advisor Nicolle Wallace (played by Sarah Paulson),
[Game Change] was true enough to make me squirm.
On the other hand, Julianne Moore does an admirable job of portraying Palin in as sympathetic a light as possible. Although her character is less than ready for politics on the national stage, she is a devoted wife and protective mother who struggles more and more with harsh media jabs at her children. She shows a constant concern for her home state of Alaska, much to the chagrin of Wallace and Schmidt, and seems emotionally lost when her family is not close. And to be fair, most Americans probably couldn't do what Palin was asked to do by the McCain campaign. But part of the movie's point is that most Americans aren't running for the highest office in the land.
"Game Change" is will undoubtably trouble you. It will make you cringe and even pity the people you see on screen - the ones who are eventually just scrambling to keep their heads above water. It will make you see familiar interviews and SNL clips in a whole new light, and it will maybe make you a bit sad. But "Game Change" will probably stay in your head for days - if not months or years after - and that is part of what makes a good movie great.