Sunday, March 11, 2012

Movie Reivew: "Game Change"

Shady usually does the movie reviews around these parts, but I had to weigh in on the recent HBO film "Game Change" named after the book written by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin about the 2008 presidential election.  For those of you who have been following The Urban Politico for a while, you may recall that we actually featured this story as our "book of the month" back in February of 2010.  Since the book's successful release in late 2009, Heilemann and Halperin have been working with director Jay Roach to turn this story into a film.  Jay Roach, as you may recall, did the HBO film "Recount" about the infamous 2000 Florida recount starring Kevin Spacey, Denis Leary and Tom Wilkinson.  Stylistically, "Game Change" is similar to "Recount" in its ability to provide the viewer with an authentic behind-the-scenes feel, however, unlike "Recount" which tended to focus more on the Democrat Ron Klain, "Game Change" is 100% dedicated to the key players within the 2008 Republican presidential campaign.  Obama, Hillary and Edwards, who are all featured prominently in the book, are only mentioned tangentially in this screen adaptation.  During one of their interviews, Heilemann and Halperin explained that this is so because of the 4 major story lines in the book (Obama, Hillary, Edwards, McCain/Palin), the McCain/Palin (played by Ed Harris and Julianne Moore, respectively) story was the only one worth telling that could lend itself well to the time constraints of a 2-hour movie (neither Edwards or Hillary became President and Obama's story would have required a mini-series). 

The movie begins with Steve Schmidt (campaign manager for Senator John McCain - played here by Woody Harrelson) seated in an interview on 60 minutes.  He is asked one seemingly simple yet poignant question: if you had it to do over again, would you put Sarah Palin on the ticket?  The film then dedicates the next 2 hours to resolving that question.

Through the aid of actual media footage, we are then shown the meteoric rise of superstar Barack Obama drawing crowds of 100's of 1000's of people both domestically and internationally, and what his super stardom meant for the McCain campaign which was, at that time, struggling to remain in the race.  Within the first 5 minutes of the film, the audience becomes the proverbial "fly on the wall" as we witness the true-to-life internal discussions of the McCain camp as they succumbed to the pressure of responding to Obama's "rock star" status with a rock star of their own.  After quickly assessing that all of the viable Vice Presidential picks were boring old white men who lacked the rock star quality that the campaign felt it so desperately needed, they agree that the VP pick needs to (A) be an outsider and (B) be a woman.  After a few quick google searches (which we also discover effectively constituted the extent of the vetting process) they arrive at a female Republican governor from Alaska who nobody had ever heard of.  Perfect!

Or so they thought.

Ed Harris playing Senator John McCain and Julianne Moore playing Sarah Palin
The movie, just like the book, pulls no punches at establishing just how little Sarah Palin actually knew about American civics or current events.  There are several uncomfortable scenes where you almost feel sorry for Palin's ignorance of national politics and world affairs. For example, while riding in a private jet on the way to her first interview with Charles Gibson, Steven Schmidt and Nicolle Wallace (played by Desperate Housewives' Sarah Paulson) ask the governor a question revolving around the relationship that the U.S. government has with the British government; she responded by stating that the Queen of England - and not the Prime Minister - is the head of British government.  They corrected her and moved on.  Then they asked if she knew what the Federal Reserve was; she did not.  They explain the answer to her in the same way that you might explain it to a 5 year-old child and then they move on to what would normally be yet another easy question: why did we go to war in Iraq?  Palin's response: because Saddam Hussein attacked us on 9/11. (WTF???)  Harrelson does a superb job of conveying the emotion of shock and awe that one would expect a campaign manager to exhibit after learning that his choice for Vice President of the United States does not possess the basics necessary to be the governor of a state, let alone 2nd in command of the free world.

Instead of overemphasizing Palin's shortcomings solely from the perspective of the campaign, the film takes a commendable approach to show the situation from Palin's point of view as well.  We see how, from Palin's point of view, she is constantly pushed and pulled and stretched beyond the limit by the campaign during every waking moment.  At one point, McCain even admits that they threw her "into the deep end without a life saver."  The film doesn't try to take sides; it simply tells you what happened.  Julianne Moore does Palin justice by portraying her in a very honest and very revealing way.  After seeing this film you develop more of an appreciation for Palin beyond what we regularly see on Fox News.  Not to mention, Moore's mastery of the Palin voice and mannerisms is uncanny.

When I first learned that Ed Harris was playing the role of John McCain I immediately thought he was mismatched for the part.  However, he actually pulls off a fairly believable Mccain.  Again, as with Palin, the movie does a good job at capturing the non-public side of John McCain.  His integrity not to play the race card against Obama, the trust he places in his staff, and his pragmatic approach to running his campaign in general are all given just enough emphasis to make the point without overdoing it.

Overall, the movie closely followed the book, which is to say it closely followed the facts.  The authors, John Heilemann and Mark Halperin (who make a cameo as news reporters asking about whether Palin's son Trig is actually Palin's baby) have gone on record as saying that each material fact written about in the book was confirmed by multiple sources.  This credibility comes across well in the film because the events in the movie sync up beautifully with what we all remember seeing in the news during the 2008 election: the Katie Couric interview; the strategy to go negative against Obama on his association with Bill Ayers; the woman in the audience at the campaign who called Obama an Arab; the Tina Fey impersonations of Palin on Saturday Night Live.  All of these moments are captured by the film and placed in the correct chronological order complete with their own respective back stories that give the audience the full and complete picture of what really happened behind closed doors.

As stated before, the movie does not make an attempt to take sides and it does a fair job at sticking to the facts without allowing political agendas to dominate the script.  If you haven't seen it yet, I'd recommend checking it out.

If you have seen it, what are your thoughts?
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