Is it biased? The answer for every film ever made about politics is yes. Is it too biased? That’s the far better question, and in the case of Game Change, the answer is sort of but not really. There are a half dozen moments or so in which director Jay Roach turns the knife on Sarah Palin’s difficult personality and lack of foreign policy knowledge to a degree that feels mean-spirited and unneeded, but he also makes an effort to highlight her incredible charisma, her immense popularity and her devotion to her family members. Altogether, we’re given a woman with the best of intentions who is thrown into an impossible situation she’s not ready for and responds with both incredible high moments and staggering low moments.
Game Change might be known colloquially as the Sarah Palin Movie, but more than that, it’s really about the inner workings of the McCain campaign. The film opens with longtime Senator John McCain (Ed Harris) buried in the polls and grasping at straws. He hires veteran strategist Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson) to get him back on track, and within a few months, he’s the presumptive Republican nominee for President. Unfortunately for him, he’s still getting buried by challenger Barack Obama.
If he hammers home how much more experienced he is, he’ll most likely still lose. If he picks Democrat Joe Lieberman as his running mate, he’ll probably still lose. If he picks any other middle-aged or older white dude, he’s still done for. His path to victory is murky at best; so, he takes Schmidt’s advice and starts looking at women. That search eventually leads him to Sarah Palin (Julianne Moore), and after a frantic, five-day vet, he picks her as a potential game change. Initially, she’s an absolute home run, reinvigorating the campaign and drawing huge crowds, but slowly, it becomes clear that no one really bothered to ascertain her level of knowledge on things like the economy and foreign policy.
Moore’s Palin is far less comical than what we were given from Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live. She’s great with the crowds and incredibly well-intentioned. All she wants to do is please McCain, but eventually, the rigors of the campaign and all of the horrible things said about her and her family start to catch up with her. She goes running and obsesses about her approval ratings in Alaska rather than preparing for interviews, and later, she starts to realize she, not McCain, is the one drawing the gigantic crowds. That knowledge creates a bit of a power struggle between her and Schmidt, and in some ways, the film uses that friction as its primary conflict.
With something like Game Change, there’s no way to ever know how truly accurate it is. Schmidt and a few other aides have claimed that it’s very close to the truth, while others have argued that most of the people who provided the source material and have spoken out (Schmidt included) weren’t exactly Palin fans on the campaign trail. I’m sure the truth is somewhere in the middle. I’m sure there are some exaggerations here and some painful moments that genuinely did happen, but regardless of where the truth lies, it doesn’t change the fact that Game Change is a pretty slick and well-made product. Actual footage from the debates and the conventions are seamlessly spliced with footage of the actors, and the resulting product has a certain authenticity and watchability about it. It offers the right level of interesting, inside campaign arguments and larger picture updates.
At under two hours, Game Change could have been a little longer. It could have stayed away from claims like Palin didn’t know Germany was the enemy in World War II and spent a little more time introducing us to other McCain strategists. On the whole, however, it’s an exciting and entertaining watch that’s slanted less to the left than you might imagine, just like its special features.
Game Change only has two special features, but both of them are absolutely worth watching. The first, entitled “Creating A Candidate”, interviews political strategists and editors about the incredible rigors of running for president. Between being on the road for months at a time to having personal lives combed over by members of the media, there is pressure from every single angle. This featurette does a wonderful job of illustrating that, and it does an even better job of making it clear why Palin was a savvy and ballsy pick at the time.
The second featurette is entitled “Game Change: the Phenomenon”, and it traces the history of Game Change. The authors were fascinated by the rampant dysfunction within the McCain campaign; so, they decided to interview as many people as they could to get as true of a story as possible. To do so, they had to promise to not directly source anyone but instead to confirm everything with multiple sources and write it as background knowledge. The powers that be at HBO then read the book, fell in love with it and the dominos started falling place.
Length: 118 minutes
Distributor:HBO Home Video
Release Date:January 8, 2013
Starring:Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson, Ed Harris
Directed by:Jay Roach
Written by: Danny Strong