Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Game Change

If He Had To Do It All Over Again . . .

Woody Harrelson as Steve Schmidt in "Game Change", a drama directed by Jay Roach and written by Danny Strong. 


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Tuesday, February 28
, 2012

Films' "Game Change", which premieres on HBO on March 10 and is directed by Jay Roach, is based on John Heilemann and Mark Halperin's 2010 best-selling book of the same name.  Danny Strong, who wrote HBO's "Recount", scripts a sharp, witty expose of the 2008 presidential campaign of Arizona Republican senator John McCain and sticks to that story, even though the Game Change book also chronicles the Obamas and Clintons during that incident-filled historic election year.

In desperate need of enervating a flagging campaign Mr. McCain's chief political strategist Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson, in a body suit) has to find a running mate to counter the polished movie star-wattage of Democratic candidate Senator Barack Obama.  "We need to create a dynamic moment in this campaign or we're dead," Mr. Schmidt declares.  McCain campaign manager Rick Davis (Peter MacNicol) surfs the Internet looking for a woman, not an "old white guy", to spice up McCain's ticket days before the Republican National Convention in Minnesota.  Appealing, casual, infectious and attractive, Alaska governor Sarah Palin (Julianne Moore) is just the tonic.  She's not vetted.  She's not seriously questioned.  No one has done their homework.

Mr. Roach, who directed "Recount", the 2008 HBO movie about the 2000 U.S. presidential election, makes "Game Change" a cautionary tale about mixing oil and water for short-term political gain.  The film focuses on the tense, prickly relationship between Mr. Schmidt and Ms. Palin, and the mistakes both make.  Ms. Palin is depicted as a roller-coaster Rhonda, wowing and woeful in equal measure, a source of enigma and frustration to the campaign puppeteers who map out her every move.

Mr. Harrelson is first-rate as Mr. Schmidt, the quick-tempered political operative who plays alchemist with the strange experimental brew he hopes to make stick for an election victory.  Voluble, cynical and forthright, Mr. Schmidt is a straight-shooter unafraid to impose his will or hefty frame to get results.  Ms. Palin, by turns ornery and opportunist, is seen as obsessed with local politics on the national stage, a fish out of water insulated by her own lack of curiosity and knowledge about the world and history.

"Game Change", which wonderfully brings us inside a war room of biting political atmosphere, plays as a sensational docudrama and portrays Governor Palin as the deer in headlights she was during the 2008 campaign.  Overall Mr. Roach resists caricaturizing the governor, as does Ms. Moore, even if "Game Change" relies on Tina Fey to take care of that, and Ms. Fey's shtick remains incredibly funny.  Such pot shots at Ms. Palin however, are nothing if not a redundant strain in "Game Change" but those shots shrewdly enhance the pity and vulnerability of an isolated woman cracking under pressure, a naive but sturdy, ambitious politician ping-ponged by the big boys of politics.  (A shot is taken albeit briefly at John Edwards, the Democratic presidential candidate in 2008 whose political and personal career took a nosedive in ignominy and disaster thereafter.)

Mr. Roach's political drama plays especially well on the big screen, hewing closely to Mr. Heilemann and Mr. Halperin's vivid written accounts culled from hundreds and hundreds of interviews in 2008 and just after, when events are fresh in mind.  Likewise, there's a freshness about "Game Change" in spite of its dated events, and it remains as alive and colorful, if not more so, than four years ago.  "Game Change" is fair in balancing its look at Ms. Palin, and is sympathetic to her, rounding her out with legitimate concerns about an attack dog press and family privacy.  By the same token Mr. Schmidt and his merry men aren't made out to be hallowed heroes.

Julianne Moore as Alaska governor Sarah Palin in Jay Roach's "Game Change".  HBO

Mr. Roach mixes archival news footage with Ms. Moore's Palin digitally superimposed in some scenes so as to make the fictional and actual Palins one and the same.  It's a fine confluence of image and reality reinforcing a theater of the surreal and grand, pageant-like spectacle.  (Ms. Palin was formerly a beauty queen.)  "Game Change", an entertaining, thought-provoking drama, is also is about a moody actress in training, a good, charismatic actress who has stubbornly refused to learn her lines and ad-libs her way into a new alternate reality of cult stardom where being knowledgeable and credible take a back seat to polish and pretense.  Those who haven't read Mr. Heilemann and Mr. Halperin's book will be surprised to see a different side of the Alaska governor on screen.

Dry comedy courses through this solid drama about an upstart used for election campaign expediency, a "mavericky" choice of running mate that backfires.  Mr. Roach's fly-on-the-wall perspective unmasks the nakedness of political ambition that while often amusing is quietly devastating.  "Game Change" is about cultivating a message while the message and the objective get polluted and mired in a nightmarish jingoistic spectacle threatening to tear an already-polarized America apart.  Mr. Roach shows us several flashpoint incidents from the 2008 campaign, including Ms. Palin's disastrous interview with Katie Couric and the racist cries and taunts against Mr. Obama from many of the overwhelmingly white McCain-Palin audiences, and the town hall meeting where one elderly white lady pronounces Mr. Obama an "Arab".  "Game Change" is self-conscious in some of these moments when it need not be, for the events speak solidly for themselves without any editorializing.

The McCain campaign's male operatives' selection of Governor Palin, while a rank concoction of cynicism and sexism, the latter of which "Game Change" doesn't confront head on, is more akin to a rash, disastrous idea that runs off the rails ala the events in "A Face In The Crowd", "The Producers" or "Bamboozled".  McCain staffers sometimes treat Governor Palin condescendingly and patronizingly.  There's an infantilizing of the governor on the part of former Bush White House communications director Nicole Wallace (Sarah Paulson, "Martha Marcy May Marlene") and Mr. Schmidt himself as they roll their eyes or glare in disbelief at the vacancy and aloofness of their shotgun pick.  By the time the end comes the damage they have wrought, unwittingly and otherwise, has been done.

In numerous instances in "Game Change" one can't help but feel sorry for Governor Palin, as inept, unprepared and pathetic as she is in some moments when the spotlight shines on her.  Yet her magnetism is undeniable.  Julianne Moore is excellent as the Alaska governor turned political superstar, and her likeness to Ms. Palin astonishing.  Ms. Moore unleashes the agony and anger of a woman guided by righteous certitude yet trapped by desperation, insecurity and a need for her own roadmap within a campaign using her as a prop or worse a trophy running mate and wind-up doll puppet to excite Republican supporters.  For a while, it works.  McCain, as he did in real life, distances himself from Ms. Palin, establishing a detachment from her, as if ashamed of her and the tone of his campaign.  Ed Harris plays Mr. McCain with a mix of bluster, avuncular charm and a realistic sense that the ship in his political career has sailed.

"Game Change" portends a tragic shift and turning point in the public relations of 21st century American politics, media and Internet stardom, a mix that today can instantly dent the credibility of a campaign if not destroy it.  Mr. Roach shows us the downside to instant star power, one birthing a dangerous new sensation emerging in Ms. Palin, a Bride of Frankenstein created for short term political victory but long term devastation.  Late on, McCain campaign manager Mr. Davis says to Mr. Schmidt of the Alaska governor, "she'll be forgotten in 48 hours."  Mr. Davis, of course, was ultimately wrong, and the film's chilling climax of McCain supporters shouting Palin's name is yet another reminder that in their obsessive drive to win at all costs the monsters of message can create a bigger, more problematic ogre than they can hope to contain.

"Game Change" debuts on HBO on Saturday, March 10 at 9pm Eastern.

With: Ron Livingston, Jamey Sheridan, John Rothman, Spencer Garrett, Brian Howe, Bruce Altman, David Barry Gray, Kevin Bigley, Justin Gaston, Ashlie Atkinson.

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