Sunday, March 18, 2012

Thrilla from Wasilla: The High Stakes of Game Change

Ed Harris and Julianne Moore as John McCain and Sarah Palin in HBO's Game Change

Greetings from Cloudcuckooland! Here in the not-so-United States of America, many Republican legislatures are proposing draconian laws to insert medically unnecessary transvaginal probes into the private parts of women seeking abortions (Texas and Virginia), or force female employees to tell their bosses if they’re using birth control for controlling births rather than for health concerns (Arizona), or change the legal definition of women who have been raped from “victims” to “accusers” (Georgia), or allow the murder of doctors who provide abortions (South Dakota).

By contrast, claiming to have foreign policy experience because you can see Russia from your house seems rather tame. That is actually only a satirical line in the dead-ringer Tina Fey impersonation on Saturday Night Live. It’s a slight exaggeration of a genuine attempt by Governor Sarah Palin to bolster her credentials as a vice-presidential nominee: She merely said that Russia can be spotted from somewhere in Alaska. The distinction is among many revelations in Game Change, an HBO drama based on the bestselling book by seasoned journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin about the 2008 elections. Viewers may be familiar with the chronology but the picture still unfolds like edge-of-your-seat entertainment.

The real Sarah Palin campaigning in 2008
As played by Julianne Moore with the approximate look and linguistic cadence, Palin complains of “gotcha questions” when unable to specify which newspapers or magazines she reads during a televised interview with Katie Couric. The Wasilla wannabe has petulantly refused to prepare for this event, but yells at campaign advisor Nicolle Wallace (a highly effective Sarah Paulson) in one of several irrational outbursts that indicate this looney lady is not ready for primetime.

Game Change was directed by Jay Roach from a script by Danny Strong, the duo that collaborated on Recount, the 2008 HBO film about the Florida voting standoff between Al Gore and George W. Bush in 2000. The new production apparently derived its behind-the-scenes insights from disillusioned insiders such as Wallace and Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson), senior campaign strategist for Senator John McCain (Ed Harris) in his failed presidential bid. The implication is that, with Palin as his divisive running mate, the candidacy was doomed. Serves them right. Their collective common sense is overshadowed by the desire for a “game changer” to counter black Barack Obama’s historic appeal. To “close the gender gap,” how about a conservative woman with an 80 percent approval rating in Alaska and a soldier son named Track (Kevin Bigley) heading to Iraq?

The McCain team considers her “a star,” unaware she’s more of a black hole. In a rush to find anyone but McCain’s pal, the Jewish pro-choice Joe Lieberman (a brief, wordless Austin Pendleton cameo), the staff only has five days to vet her and never worries when she proclaims the selection as “God’s plan.” Moreover, Palin’s profound lack of knowledge about world affairs comes as a surprise. She doesn’t understand why Korea became two countries, for example. “We’ll get her up to speed,” Schmidt assures the others, including skeptic Mark Salter (Jamey Sheridan) and ruthless Rick Davis (Peter MacNichol). But speed is not helpful. Media scrutiny turns up information that unwed daughter Bristol (Melissa Farman) is pregnant and husband Todd (David Barry Gray) belonged to an extremist secession group for seven years, among other problematic issues.

Wallace laments that Palin “doesn’t know anything” and has a tendency to go into “catatonic stupors.” Schmidt decides not to mention any of this to McCain, even as he asks rhetorically: “My God, what have we done?” Nonetheless, they march onward to disaster. Palin can periodically demonstrate populist savvy, especially in front of a crowd. The fans adore her. The fact that she has a baby with Down syndrome makes mothers of special-needs children true believers and fosters the image of a compassionate leader.

The imagined and real John McCains

All these good qualities, however, do not obscure her shocking capacity for lies, denial and downright nastiness. Aboard his bus dubbed The Straight Talk Express, McCain hesitates to ”go negative” about his opponent, but at rallies Palin happily contends Obama is “palling around with terrorists” because of a previous association in Chicago with former Weather Underground activist Bill Ayers. By this time, she has “gone rogue” and is describing her followers as “the real America.”

Folks in the other America who tune into Game Change may keep forgetting it’s not a documentary. Harris morphs into his character, perfectly capturing McCain’s odd body language, reportedly the result of five years as a tortured prisoner of war in North Vietnam. He creates a sympathetic portrait of a man alarmed by the hatred and racism coming from some of his supporters – they call Obama a Muslim or a socialist and trumpet sending him “back to Africa.” Yet, in that this is probably the last chance for him to become commander-in-chief, the aging military veteran is compelled by ambition to violate his own basic decency.

The imagined and real Steve Schmidts

Harrelson’s portrayal of Schmidt is also fascinating. Not an exact replica of the bald mastermind, the actor suggests an intelligent human being required to behave stupidly when he thinks there’s no other option. Stuck with Palin, he and his colleagues are always trying to spin her inadequacies as charming eccentricities.

By comparison, Moore’s performance is elusive. Perhaps that’s due to the fact Palin, in reality, remains an enigma to the people who worked so hard to guide her. Is she dumb? Calculating? Incurious? Crazy-like-a-Fox News commentator? Some outside observers suspect good old “Sarah from Alaska” as she modestly describes herself in Game Change, is a fame whore too intellectually lazy to tackle improvement. The wild fluctuations of mood onscreen hint at a bipolar diagnosis for a gal who might be able to see the North Pole from her house.

Palin’s bizarre demeanor pales when considering the current slate of Republicans hoping to occupy the Oval Office. Their antics, fueled by heedless pandering to Christian fundamentalists, merits a cinematic retelling of its own some day. Ron Paul intends to do away with five government agencies, including the Department of Education. Rick Santorum, a homophobe, hates contraception of any kind. Mitt Romney thinks corporations are people. And Newt Gingrich, who hopes to make poor black kids toil as low-wage janitors at their schools, envisions establishing a lunar colony as the 51st state. Call it Cloudcuckooland II.

Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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