Sarah Palin lacked the preparation or temperament to be one
heartbeat away from the presidency, but what she possessed in abundance was the
ability to inflame political passions and energize the John McCain campaign
with star quality. That much we already knew. What I didn't expect to discover
after viewing “Game Change,” a new HBO film about the 2008 McCain campaign, was
how much sympathy I would feel for Palin, and even more for John McCain.
The movie is largely told from the point of view of two McCain
advisers, Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson) and Nicolle Wallace (Sarah Paulson).
Schmidt was instrumental in the selection of Palin (Julianne Moore) as the
running mate of McCain (Ed Harris), and Wallace was another senior adviser.
During the campaign, they share their concern as Palin reveals a comprehensive
lack of knowledge about current events.
In the days before Palin's selection, it seemed so much simpler. McCain's inner
circle shared a fear of Barack Obama as a formidable opponent. They had little
enthusiasm for McCain's preference for running mate, Sen. Joe Lieberman, a
centrist independent from Connecticut. As they saw Obama drawing
record-breaking crowds, Lieberman's appeal seemed tepid. What McCain needed,
they became convinced, was a “game changer,” a vice presidential candidate who
would alter the landscape.
On paper, the governor of Alaska was ideal. In person, she had delightful
charisma. It's made clear in the film that Schmidt and his team did only a
superficial background check on her, and later Schmidt was to berate himself for
not asking her a single policy question. McCain, persuaded that she might be
the game changer he needed, went along. Doubts began to form before the GOP
convention, but they were swept away by her triumphant speech accepting the
nomination. Backstage, the McCain troops hugged themselves with delight.
Watching that speech at home, I remember thinking, “Obama's in real trouble.”
Some GOP pundits confessed they had crushes on her. Palin's crowd appeal was
enormous. She went overnight from being an obscure governor to being a
superstar. Then reality began to sink in: Palin knew virtually nothing about
current events, world politics, history, geography. Wallace and Schmidt share
their astonishment: She didn't know what the Fed was. She thought Korea was one
country. She believed Queen Elizabeth was the British head of state.
In preparation for her first debate with Democratic VP candidate Joe Biden, she
hopelessly shuffled file cards and retained little. In an interview with Katie
Couric of CBS, she came across as a deer caught in headlights. She had such an
indifference to facts that she repeated the same errors (about the Bridge to
Nowhere, for example) no matter how often the staff corrected her. She knew an
applause line that would please audiences, and that was enough for her.
But hold on a moment. Am I simply repeating a slanted partisan view? Decide for
yourself if you see the film. Adapted from a best-selling book with the same
title by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, it draws on hundreds of interviews
with McCain camp insiders, and although Palin's supporters are protesting its
negative portrait, the facts and dialogue seem to be accurate. When Newsweek's
David Frum asked Schmidt what he thought about the film, he said it was “an
out-of-body experience.” Neither he nor Wallace (who confessed that after
working with Palin she was unable to vote for McCain) has questioned its
Palin was transformed by discovering her ability to mesmerize crowds. She grew
intoxicated by her power and rejected guidance from advisers. Nothing like this
had ever happened to her before. Exhilarated by the adulation she drew
everywhere she went, she was wounded by questions from Couric and others, which
she considered hostile “gotcha!” attacks. Tina Fey's celebrated skits on
“Saturday Night Live” hurt her deeply. She found herself loved and ridiculed at
the same time.
In her performance, Julianne Moore doesn't do an impersonation of Palin here,
in the sense that Meryl Streep was uncanny in her resemblance to Margaret
Thatcher in “The Iron Lady.” She looks about as much like Palin as she can, but
that's not the point. She conveys the essence. In a way, she's unprotected. Not
a hardened, cynical politician, but a woman who has gone through life expecting
good things and usually found them. There is a moment in “Game Change” when
she's alone, and we see the hurt and sadness in her eyes when she realizes that
people are finding her lacking. She's like a student who studied hard for the
exam and failed anyway. The people love her. Alaska still loves her; that's why
she's so urgent about the results of an Alaska poll on her popularity. Why are
these media creatures being so cruel? Why is everyone picking on her expensive
wardrobe? She didn't want the damn fancy clothes in the first place. Moore
conveys these feelings with tenderness and subtlety. Her performance is not a
barbed parody, but based on the actress' instinctive empathy with a character.
As John McCain, Ed Harris has more of a supporting role. He comes across in “Game
Change” as a decent man of principle, who has honorable ideas about how a
campaign should be conducted and sticks to them. There is a suggestion that he
blames himself along with his staff for failing to vet Palin properly; they
were too blinded by her appeal to take the time for a cool evaluation.
The film avoids scenes involving the personal lives of the Palins and McCains.
Spouses are seen but rarely heard. Palin is depicted as an affectionate mother.
This is proper, because the sources for the book and film were expert on the
campaign itself, but it wouldn't be appropriate for them to supply information
about private lives.
Woody Harrelson makes Steve Schmidt a pillar at the center of the story, a man
driven by frustration as he tries to manage a campaign that Palin is trying to
manage herself. As late as election night, they had a shouting match because
she wanted to join McCain onstage, where her own concession speech would join
his. Schmidt roars at her: “It's never been done that way in American history!
The candidate concedes!” As she walks onstage with McCain, his eyes are still
shooting daggers at her as a warning not to grab the microphone for a few words
of her own.
Sarah Palin was, Schmidt concluded, the greatest actress in the history of
American politics. Abandoning any attempt to brief her before the debates, he
hit on the idea of assigning her 25 statements that she would memorize, and
then circle around to no matter what the question was. This she did
brilliantly. She may have been a bad candidate, but she was a brilliant
campaigner, astonishing the staff by her ability to save situations that looked
perilous to them.
Seeing “Game Change” is like living again through the campaign of 2008. Much of
the dialogue is literally words we've already heard. We're left with the
conviction that Sarah Palin would have made a dangerously incompetent president
of the United States, and that those closest to her in the campaign, including
John McCain, came to realize that.