[A major, major hat tip to my colleague Stacy Drake, whose invaluable advice and moral support made researching this article a far less daunting endeavour.]
I want to start things off by clarifying that I have no interest in relitigating the 2008 Presidential campaign. That’s ancient history, and this is a movie blog, not a political science journal.
That is why many of you are likely scratching your heads about why anyone, in 2012, would dedicate any space to an HBO film about the unsuccessful McCain/Palin ticket. I would respond that we should all be scratching our heads as to why HBO would produce a a film about the losing side of a four-year old campaign and why it was given such high praise.
Indeed, Game Change is, at face value, a rather perplexing project. The book on which it is based is 23 chapters and over 400 pages, yet the film adaptation chooses to focus solely on the selection of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running mate and the events that followed, despite the book containing just two chapters, or 40 pages, of Palin content.
Despite its oddly selective subject matter, critics lauded the film, and it went on to receive 12 Emmy nominations, of which it won five last Sunday, including Outstanding Miniseries or TV Movie and Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or Movie, for Julianne Moore’s Palin portrayal. In her award acceptance speech, Moore boasted, “Wow, I feel so validated because Sarah Palin gave me a big thumbs down.”
But why, if the film is nonfiction, did McCain, Palin and her aides protest the film so vocally? And just how impartial can a film about the McCain/Palin campaign be when its director donated $2,500 to Barack Obama’s Presidential campaign; its screenplay writer donated $2,300 to Obama; its star actress donated $250 to Obama, plus $5,000 to the Democratic White House Victory Fund; and its producer donated $34,500 to Obama? Not to mention, why was Moore positively gleeful at the dissatisfaction she drew from Palin by playing her?
Well, for one thing, it was filled to the brim with lies, and multiple aides who worked both on the McCain campaign and for Palin post-election refuted the content of the film. Most of those same aides were not contacted by either the co-authors of the book or the producers of the film.
Like Governor Palin, I majored in journalism, and I fully respect the importance of protecting one’s sources. But Game Change is based so heavily off of anonymous campaign aides whose stories conflict with those who are willing to go on the record, it seriously calls into question the veracity of its content. Not to mention, neither John Heilemann nor Mark Halperin, the book’s co-authors, actually covered the McCain-Palin campaign. Their reportage consists of, at best, purely second- and thirdhand accounts.
The film is largely about the conflict between Palin and two of McCain’s senior staffers, Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson) and Nicolle Wallace (Sarah Paulson). If one’s knowledge of the campaign came solely from the film, it would appear that the entire McCain campaign was a competent, albeit struggling, operation, and Palin’s entry ruined absolutely everything. In order to do this, the film underplays undoubtedly the worst decision of the entire race: Senator McCain “suspending” his campaign amidst the financial crisis, in order to go to Washington to help fix the situation.
Schmidt, a bully of questionable political acumen, pushed for going all-in, and it was a horrible misfire. The gamble made McCain look erratic and Obama appear calm in the face of danger. Polling shows that the only time during the campaign that McCain was ahead was after he announced Palin as his running mate on August 29, and it also shows that Obama regained and kept his momentum through Election Day following the mid-September financial collapse.
Fact-checking aside, how is Game Change as a film? After all, Julianne Moore won an Emmy for her acting skills, so surely her Palin performance was a highlight of an otherwise mediocre film. Actually, no. And don’t call me Shirley.
Other than mimicking a few of Palin’s folksy verbal tics, such as pronouncing “deal” as “dill,” Moore’s Palin doesn’t look or sound a thing like the original. Her voice is too low, her delivery too cynical — and frankly, she doesn’t have much more credibility than a drag queen. The difference is, drag queens at least have the decency to lip-snych the women they imitate, instead of using their real, mannish voices.
A perfect example of Moore’s piss-poor imitation is when Palin and Schmidt are on a campaign plane together, discussing her recent selection as VP. Palin expresses full confidence in her ability to aid the ticket because, “It’s God’s plan.” Except Moore’s delivery is not one of hopeful faith but of ominous foreshadowing, as if she should continue with, “And lo, if the populace do not obey the prophecy but elect Obama the Antichrist, there shall usher in one thousand years of darkness, and the rivers shall flow with blood!” (Because Palin’s a psychotic evangelical, you see.)
Game Change also mixes its politico personifications with actual election footage, with horrifying results. This is particularly egregious during the debate between Palin and Joe Biden. The real Biden goes toe-to-toe with “Palin,” and it looks positively Frankensteinian, a mélange of real and obviously fake.
In addition, McCain supporters are smeared as a bunch of racists and simpletons. We see rallygoers interviewed and giving their emotional reasons for supporting the McCain/Palin ticket (“She has five kids. I have five kids. She listens to me. No-one listens to me.”). And later on, as the McCain campaign resorts to attacking Obama’s character in the waning days of the campaign, a man in the audience of one rally shouts, “Kill him!” in reference to Obama. Despite widespread reports saying otherwise, the Secret Service confirmed that no such threat ever occurred.
As if to give the film some fig leaf of legitimacy, Game Change features a number of scenes showing Palin as a devoted mother — when she isn’t having nervous breakdowns over separation anxiety from her infant son. These scenes include Palin calling her older son, Track, during his tour in Iraq and being reassured that he is safe; consoling her oldest daughter, Bristol, as she is attacked in the media for her unwed teen pregnancy; and asking her youngest daughter, Piper, to pray with her before the Vice Presidential debate, an exchange Palin herself has recounted: “What should we pray for?” “Just… pray that we win the debate.” “Mom, that would be cheating!”
Many liberals who saw the film came away with oddly positive feelings about Palin, in part due to these emotional scenes. A frequent refrain I have heard is, “The movie made me feel sympathy for her.”
“Sympathy”? Really? That is your positive feeling towards Sarah Palin after watching this film? If your friend breaks his leg, that elicits “sympathy.” Those godawful, depressing Sarah McLachlan animal abuse commercials elicit “sympathy.” Major-party Vice Presidential nominees should not elicit “sympathy.” The way liberals talk about Governor Palin in Game Change, one would think she is a battered housewife in a Lifetime special, not the second woman in American history to run for the second-highest office on Earth. These scenes are intentional, artfully inserted into the negative narrative so the final product can be passed off as “fair.”
The film is supposed to be a drama, but it repeatedly gives us moments of unintentional comedy. Case in point: When it becomes clear on election night that John McCain will lose and lose badly, Schmidt approaches Wallace, who tearfully says, ”Steve, there’s something I have to tell you. I didn’t vote. I couldn’t do it. I didn’t vote.” And she bursts into tears.
Perhaps it’s because the only way I was able to sit through the unbelievable sh!tshow that is Game Change was by knocking back a few to make the experience somewhat less painful, but this scene made me burst out laughing. Not only did I laugh because Wallace is such a conniving traitor that I delighted in her suffering like the sadist bastard I am, but I also revelled in it because just last year, she released a novel about a fictional Presidential campaign troubled by a mentally-ill female VP candidate. Wallace herself endorsed the film’s accuracy as “true enough to make me squirm,” so she’s basically admitted that she herself was so emotionally, nay, mentally unstable that she couldn’t bring herself to vote for her own campaign.
Returning to the scenes designed to elicit sympathy for Palin, we see her in many scenes greeting enthusiastic supporters, including ones with special needs. Palin’s younger son, Trig, has Down syndrome, and her advocacy for special-needs children did lead families with special-needs children to flock to her rallies. By itself, seeing the faux Palin telling a young man with Down syndrome that she hopes her son will be as handsome as he is when he grows up is heartwarming. In context, I was furious knowing that this film used an actor who actually had special needs as one strategic piece of its malicious story line.
Shame on HBO for producing this hit piece. Shame on Julianne Moore and the rest of the rogues’ gallery who made up the cast for starring in it. And shame on the Emmys for rewarding the slander and deception that went into making it. If nothing else, the praise that this trash garnered versus the jeers hurled at The Undefeated*, an honest look at the accomplishments of Governor Palin’s career, show us that sometimes, life isn’t fair. The good guys don’t always get the credit they deserve, and the bad guys get to bask in the glory, if only temporarily.
As I stated at the beginning of this article, what’s done is done. No-one has to agree with Sarah Palin’s politics. No-one has to think she was prepared for the Vice Presidency. No-one even has to like her. As a public figure, she is not above scrutiny any more than any other man or woman who has run for high office, and she can certainly defend herself. But she deserves better than to be lied about by a smarmy pack of bitter, partisan jackals, whose quest for self-satisfaction led them to denigrate the medium of film by creating a piece of Riefenstahl-esque propaganda that debased all of those involved as artists. Game Change deserves nothing but our utter contempt and scorn, and Sarah Palin, more than anyone else, deserves an apology.
*Full disclosure: I helped promote The Undefeated during summer 2011.