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Game Change: Not mavericky, but nice

"Our slogan's 'Country First.' Lieberman and Pawlenty are 'Country First' choices. Sarah Palin will be perceived as a self-serving political maneuver. You may not only lose this election, John, you just might lose your reputation right along with it." -- prescient warning by McCain advisor Mark Salter (Jamey Sheridan) in "Game Change"

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First, there's this: Austin Pendleton as Joe Lieberman. I just want to mention that casting masterstroke up-front because, even though he only gets about two minutes of screen time (and most of it is in the background) it's one of those little touches that shows the people who made "Game Change" have an eye for the telling detail. I had so much fun watching this movie. The funny thing is, it isn't exactly satire, maybe because that's already inherent in the real-life material. It's a comedy (I think), but the humor is fairly mild, certainly not as funny as Sarah Palin's public appearances actually were. I guess we're just used to her now.

Still, I thoroughly enjoyed "Game Change," which goes out of its way to demonstrate understanding and sympathy for Palin, and absolves John McCain of all responsibility for his unconscionable campaign in 2008. (Spoiler alert: It was his advisers who screwed up!) Honestly, McCain and Palin should drop down on their knees and thank everybody involved in this picture for their kindness and discretion: director Jay Roach ("Austin Powers," "Recount") and writer Danny Strong ("Recount"), who adapted the book by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, and a top-notch cast, headed by Woody Harrelson as McCain advisor Steve Schmidt (who is really the main character), Julianne Moore as Palin and Ed Harris as McCain. It's just a shame Harris doesn't have a bigger part to play in the proceedings.

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"Game Change" is patterned on redemptive Frank Capra and Preston Sturges archetypes (a dash of "Mrs. Palin Goes to Washington" and maybe quite a lot of "Hail, the Conquering Heroine" -- minus the hero's moral torment over misrepresenting himself), even if the screwball energy is missing. Although, things get fairly dark (as they often do in Capra and Sturges) when Palin shuts down and goes catatonic, overwhelmed by the advisers who are trying to make her into someone and something she is not (neither a conventional politician, nor a credible candidate for Vice President of the United States), she finally snaps out of it, drawing strength from her love of family and state and country, and "goes rogue" in the third act, rediscovering her unique voice and her true spirit. That's a generous assessment of her character, but it's left up to you to decide whether the Real Sarah Palin is someone who oughtta be in politics. Above: The Real Thing

The movie is crafted as a story about risks, rewards and regrets, self-deception and denial, but it's also a classic tale of self-affirmation. So, in the third act, with Sarah back in the saddle, "Game Change" zings its way to something like a happy ending, even in electoral defeat: She gathers her cherished family around her and returns to her beloved Alaska, maybe a little wiser and definitely a lot... famouser. (We all know how that worked out, but the movie doesn't go there.)

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Some politicians, like some artists and performers, are methodical and some are intuitive, and Palin is unquestionably one of the latter. She is chosen to shake things up -- to change the game when campaign advisers determine they can't win with a conventional VP choice -- and that she does. To highlight her exceptionality, "Game Change" even resurrects the almost-immediately debunked story that her Teleprompter failed halfway through her convention speech and she just winged it from there! Wow, what a natural! No wonder she couldn't be troubled to learn the boring old facts on those briefing flash cards the uncomprehending McCain folks gave her. She's too special for facts! (She's right about the main thing, though: Her audience doesn't care a whit about facts.They like how she makes them feel. For me, the most moving moment in the film is when an overweight white lady in a t-shirt and trucker hat says she feels that Palin is talking to her -- "and nobody talks to me.")

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Sure, Palin is also inexperienced, ignorant, uncooperative and not terribly bright, but she's not portrayed as an Evil Queen, or a power-mad, pathological liar, as some have characterized her. The campaign even brings in a doc to observe her and determine if she might be mentally ill. His diagnosis: For a woman who's just had a baby, has a pregnant teen daughter and a son in Iraq, she looks pretty good. So, "Game Change" presents her as a strong and devoted mother with a feisty edge, a can-do spirit, and a "Joe Sixpack" faith in simple ideas and the hard work to get things done. That's about as deep as the film cares to delve into actual politics; it's about campaigning, messages, symbols and aphorisms, not about policies or philosophies.

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My only criticism of Moore's performance is that she's just a trifle studied at times, without the reckless, manic zeal that makes watching the real Palin like witnessing a car without brakes careening down a treacherous mountain road. The film begins with Palin blithely unfazed by the glare of the international spotlight, only to be (temporarily) cowed and crushed by all the mean things people say about her! This stuns and mystifies her because, as far as she's concerned, none of it is brought on by anything she said or did. So what if she thinks the Queen of England was the head of the government, or didn't know why there was a North Korea and a South one? Who cares if she thinks Saddam Hussein attacked us on 9/11, or has never heard of the Fed? How dare anyone say she's not qualified! Once the gaffes go public, she finds a way to blame blooper after boner on the "gotcha" lamestream media or the McCain campaign staff. The problem isn't her -- it's that the world won't fall in line with her expectations. As Fareed Zakaria (the real one) says in a CNN clip: "It's not that she doesn't know the right answer, its that she clearly does not understand the question." On election night, her own former lead staffer, Sarah Paulson (Nicolle Wallace), confesses she couldn't even bring herself to vote for the McCain-Palin ticket.

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The way I read the movie, it sees Palin as someone who jumped at the opportunity she was offered and nearly drowned when she realized she was in way over her head. That's a legitimate, if fairly safe and conventional, interpretation of events, I suppose, but I'm not sure it's accurate -- or as psychologically or dramatically interesting -- as what I suspect may be closer to the truth: that Palin never for a moment had (conscious) doubts about herself or felt she was out of her depth, but was driven by her unshakable belief in the righteousness of her outsized ambition. Sure, she was bummed when it seemed the campaign and the media were restraining her, but once she'd tasted the Big Time, there was no going back. She knew she was bigger than Alaska.

Personally, I never thought Palin had enough self-awareness for self-doubt. If she was embarrassed or humiliated by, say, her now-famous gaffes in the Katie Couric interview (which she refused to prep for, feeling that she was best at being spontaneous), it was because other people thought Couric got the best of her, not because she did or said anything she should legitimately regret. There's a scene in which Moore as Palin watches Tina Fey as Palin on "SNL," re-enacting the Couric interview. She appears stunned, but what is she reacting to? Does she understand why the audience is laughing? The movie fails to make the most important point about this sketch, which is that some of Fey's incoherent responses were taken almost verbatim from the actual interview transcript.

I've known quite a few Sarah Palins, male and female (and so have you, probably), and what they have in common isn't so much stupidity or shallowness as an unshakeable sense of entitlement. They really believe they deserve to "win," and they'll work very hard to do so. They may be intellectually lazy and incurious, but perhaps the lack of desire for knowledge and understanding allows them to focus on what's most important to them: "winning."

Although we may be familiar with a lot of the events that took place between September and November, 2008, this film, like any work of historical drama, offers its own interpretations of them. I haven't read the book "Game Change" is based on, but several interpretations of events struck me as notable. According to the movie, Palin's VP debate ploy of asking Joe Biden if she could call him "Joe" wasn't an attempt to throw him off-guard or pull him down to her level -- it was just that she had a habit in rehearsals of calling him "O'Biden" and she didn't want to trip herself up. The movie also says that McCain knew Bristol Palin was pregnant before her mother was selected -- which is the campaign said at the time. "Game Change" doesn't touch on the implications of Palin's candidacy on the mother-daughter relationship ("Country First"?). When it comes to the Palin family, the movie is strictly hands off.

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Also, according to "Game Change," Palin clearly enjoyed the $150,000 in wardrobe and "hair and makeup consulting" the campaign lavished on her, but in the movie she says nobody told her it was so expensive and that at home she bought her own clothes at "consignment shops." Todd Palin's seven-year membership in the Alaska Independence Party (whose sole platform is the secession of Alaska from the US) is mentioned, but Sarah's endorsement of it is not. (Watch her welcome message to the 2008 AIP convention here.) Sarah later insists Todd joined the AIP by mistake. He checked the wrong box.

The movie's shorthand storytelling is sometimes preposterous, as when Rick Davis (Peter MacNichol) goes on YouTube to shop for a conservative, pro-life Republican woman running-mate. The irony that Palin was in part undone by the availability and repeatability of her mistakes on the same site is nice (before YouTube, that Couric interview would have just gone away!), but the reality -- that she first impressed right-wing pundits like William Kristol, who called on her in Juneau while on Alaskan cruises sponsored by The Weekly Standard -- is pretty delicious.

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Perhaps because it is essentially a light entertainment, "Game Change" also glosses only lightly over the most notably chilling aspect of the 2008 Republican campaign, and how it set the tone for the last four years: the vocal ugliness of the crowds Palin and McCain attracted, and the candidates' roles in encouraging them. We see McCain flinch when someone in the crowd responds to his "Who is Barack Obama?" rhetoric by yelling "a terrorist!" (and "Muslim!" and "Send him back to Africa!"). And there's the famous moment when he takes the microphone away from an angry lady who says she's heard Obama is "an Arab." "This isn't the campaign I wanted to run," a dispirited McCain says later, evidently unaware that the inability to show leadership in front of crowds at his own rallies was not very "presidential."

But we don't see McCain's own inflammatory rhetoric -- like, for example, his hysterical claim that the now-defunct ACORN was "on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy." McCain destroyed what was left of his reputation, all right, and he did it himself, on television (and on the floor of the Senate), in front of everybody.

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And where is the notorious "McCain temper? Few politicians are as infamously hot-headed and thin-skinned as McCain, but here he has the temperament of Mr. Rogers. He's actually afraid of Palin and doesn't want to confront her directly. Perhaps the filmmakers felt there was room for only one "maverick" in this game-change. According to the movie, McCain and Palin had scarcely any contact that didn't take place in public between the Republican convention and McCain's concession speech.

OK, so "Game Change" isn't always accurate -- but it's more than fair. It could have adhered strictly to the facts and been so much harder on so many people, not just McCain and Palin. But this isn't a campaign commercial, it's an entertainment.

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