Monday, March 12, 2012

I Watched Game Change...

The HBO movie based on the best-selling book by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin.  The book is based on the 2008 presidential election, beginning with the hotly contested Democratic primary fight between Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton and ending with the fall campaign between Obama and McCain, the addition of Sarah Palin to the McCain ticket and how all of these events culminated with Obama winning the presidency.  While the book discusses all of these stages of the election at length, the movie adaptation focuses only on the last segment of the book dealing with Sarah Palin being put on the ticket.

First of all, Julianne Moore is an amazing actress.

Moore's take on Palin is incredibly accurate, from her unique cross-regional dialect to her winks and gestures, even the way she walks and her animations while speaking.  Moore does an excellent job channeling Palin's mannerisms.  When Moore delivers some of Palin's most famous public statements - from her interviews with Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric to her VP acceptance speech and debate performance - she does so with spot-on accuracy.

Also outstanding in this film is Ed Harris as John McCain.

Harris also does an exceptional job in this movie.  His portrayal of McCain as a tough and principled, yet conflicted candidate with a sailor's vocabulary was funny and surprisingly flattering.  Despite the portrayal of McCain by the media on both sides of the aisle, in "Game Change" he comes across as a man with deep convictions and a strong desire to run an honorable race against Obama.  He was disturbed by the angry, ignorant and borderline racist tone that was gaining momentum on the Republican side, and it comes to a head in the film during his famous campaign stump speech where he took the mic away from an elderly woman after she said Obama was an "Arab" and not an American and corrected her saying "He is an American and he's a good and decent man who I just happen to disagree with".  It's ironic that this was probably the last time that a leading Republican politician would ever admit publicly and in no uncertain terms that Obama was both an American and a "good and decent man".  The pressure by the right for McCain to attack Obama's associations and play to the ignorance of conservative voters about his faith and ideology was the precursor to the current, fiercely divisive rhetoric coming from the Tea Party wing now.  By the end of the film, Harris as McCain says "This wasn't the kind of campaign I wanted to run", referring to the fear mongering and deliberate misinformation being propagated by his campaign and, specifically, by Sarah Palin.

Woody Harrelson also does a fantastic job as campaign manager Steve Schmidt.

As I mentioned, unlike the book, the film adaptation focuses only on the part of the 2008 campaign when Palin is brought onto the Republican ticket.  Schmidt was the man who headed up the team responsible for finding the perfect VP pick to be a "game changer" for the McCain campaign.  Their task was daunting, they had to pick someone who could generate the amount of excitement with the conservative base that Obama was igniting on the left and their pick had to have the star power and charisma to compete with Obama's neo-celebrity status going in to the home stretch of the election.  Palin seemed like a perfect choice when they found her, she was poised, confident and seemingly well-versed in the nuances of the political game.  What follows is the chronicling of how Palin went from being an eager and enthusiastic, albeit frightfully naive and undereducated member of the McCain team to an irrational and self-serving political monster, caught up in her own overinflated ego, who may well have cost McCain the election through her "rogue" behavior on the campaign trail.

This aspect of Palin's rise to the national political stage is pretty well documented.  The biggest takeaway from the book when it was first introduced to the political discussion was the way the McCain campaign really created a monster in Sarah Palin.  They had taken this woman, a half-term Alaskan governor, and thrust her into the national spotlight without adequate vetting or preparation and whether you like Sarah Palin or not, she is what she is today because of the decision made by Schmidt and his team.  These details aren't new, the unflattering portrait of Palin has been floating around the news cycle ever since she became a household name.  However, what is new, perhaps, is the humanization of both Palin and McCain in this film in a way that, if it doesn't make them likable to their critics, at least makes them a little more understandable.

McCain comes across very well in this movie, in my opinion.  He is portrayed as a guy who wanted to run a good, clean race and who expressed a great deal of respect for not just Obama, but the entire process of the campaign.  He rejects the efforts to attack Obama for the statements made by Reverend Jeremiah Wright and for his association with William Ayers.  Only when the backlash against Palin causes them to start lagging dangerously behind Obama leading into the final weeks of the election does McCain finally agree to start bringing up the Ayers association, which Palin attacks with glee on the trail.  McCain is shown to be distressed, not just with having to resort to that kind of mud-slinging, but also with the deliberately false accusations and statements Palin was hurling at her stump speeches, which reflected negatively on McCain each time one was debunked by the media.

Indeed, from the moment Palin "goes rogue" in the film, it's as if everyone working for the McCain campaign looks at each other and collectively thinks "What have we done?"

This, undoubtedly, is why Palin and her supporters have bashed "Game Change" for being a false narrative and a work of complete fiction.  However, all but one of the people personally involved with the McCain/Palin campaign have said that both the book and the film adaptation are almost completely accurate in their portrayal of the events leading to the 2008 election.

Now, while the overall image painted of Sarah Palin isn't a very flattering one, this movie is far from a character assassination either.  Palin isn't portrayed as a villain or an inherently evil person, she just comes across as a naive and unprepared player in the national political game.  She starts out filled with good intentions and a ton of ambition, to the point that she is a very sympathetic character at the beginning of the movie.  You almost feel sorry for her as she walks into a political firefight with no real idea what she's about to get herself into.  As the race progresses, she emerges seemingly from the verge of a nervous breakdown over the relentless media scrutiny she is forced to endure to become an irrational, self-righteous egomaniac who believed, by the end of the race, that she was the real head of the ticket.  The scene towards the end of the film, where Harrelson as Schmidt tells Palin that she will not be allowed to deliver a concession speech of her own before McCain delivers his is a perfect summation of the evolution of Palin from a wet behind the ears, big fish in a small pond to the self-aggrandized far-right pundit who completely believes her own hype.

And this, ultimately, is the theme of "Game Change".  While the book may have chronicled the major events on both sides of the race, the film is all about Sarah and how her introduction to the national Republican party marked a major turning point for the party.  The rise of Sarah Palin as an important conservative figure is shown to go hand-in-hand with the devolution of the conservative base into anti-intellectualism, xenophobia, wild conspiracy theorizing and thinly-veiled racism.  In a very real way, the popularity of Sarah Palin appears to be directly proportional to the level of angry extremism on the right.  By the time McCain and his team realize what they have created in Sarah Palin, she's already "gone rogue" and the party has been irreversibly changed as a result.  In one of the final scenes of the film, after McCain echoes Schmidt's refusal to allow Palin to give her unprecedented concession speech, he embraces her and says "You're the future of this party".  For better or worse, that was a very accurate statement.  

So, I thought "Game Change" was a fantastic movie.  I came away from the movie with a considerable respect for McCain and the way he tried to conduct his campaign.  I empathized with his efforts to do whatever he could in order to win the election, while also trying to maintain the high road and not cave in to pressure from the conservative media and pundits to wallow in the mud with baseless personal attacks and fear mongering.  There is a great line Harris delivers as McCain where he says "I'd rather take a risk as lose by 10 points than play it safe and lose by 1 point and wonder what would have happened if we took that risk instead."

I also came away with a bit of a different perspective on Sarah Palin and not necessarily a negative one.  I felt sympathetic towards her at the beginning of her addition to the ticket, when the relentless barrage of media scrutiny and criticism brought her family to tears and pushed her to the brink of a breakdown.  I also found the portrayal of her evolution to be quite revealing as well.  She just really seems like a woman who started off in way over her head to begin with and has never really figured out how to tread the waters properly since.  So, on the one hand, I felt bad that she was thrown into a situation that she was nowhere near prepared to handle and on the other I felt frustrated that she is either too stubborn or has too big of an ego to just admit she's not qualified for the job she has assumed.  It's like watching a person with no medical training be pushed into surgery and handed a scalpel and being told to save the patients life and as bad as you feel for the poor bastard who has to sit there with no idea what to do, you are far more angry that they're actually trying to do it and the worse they hack the patient up, the more they insist they know what they're doing.

Bottom line:  Watch "Game Change", it's a fascinating and entertaining movie.

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