Friday, October 4, 2013

Bringing The Substance Without The Empathy, Game Change Is Good, Not Great!

The Good: Acting, Historical/insider information
The Bad: Fails to make any of the protagonists at all empathetic, Mixed media
The Basics: Game Change is not at all a timeless look at the 2008 presidential election from the Republican side.

Two summers ago, while my wife and I were working in different cities, she had access to cable television (whereas I did not). One night, she saw the film Game Change on HBO and for more than a year, she was telling me how I absolutely had to see the film. Our local library finally managed to get the movie in on DVD and we watched it immediately. I can see why she was excited: Julianne Moore does a startlingly good interpretation of Sarah Palin and offers a nice alternative to the slightly over-the-top Tina Fey presentation.

Game Change is a biography produced for HBO and it is worth noting that for all my love of politics, I am not intimately aware of the backroom dealings involved with making Sarah Palin the vice presidential candidate. I saw her public blunders, but the subject of Game Change is the behind-the-scenes Sarah Palin and McCain campaign; I’ll have no commentary on how the film stacks up as a historical document (for truth). That said, Game Change is entertaining, but it fails to make its protagonist empathetic. If anything, Game Change illustrates how little control John McCain had over his own campaign, how problematic a variable Sarah Palin was and how poorly Palin was prepared for a national campaign.

After a particularly rough Republican primary season, John McCain surprises the pundits to gain the Republican nomination for President of the United States in 2008. After the campaign accidentally leaks McCain’s plan to put Democrat Joseph Lieberman on the ticket with him, McCain appeals to his campaign leadership – Steve Schmidt and Rick Davis – to find a celebrity-style candidate to run opposite Obama to stop the hemorrhage of voters to the Democrats. With a limited vetting process, Schmidt suggests that McCain take Sarah Palin, the Governor of Alaska, as his running mate. Sarah Palin leaps onto the ticket and instantly energizes the campaign.

Unfortunately, as Palin’s handler, Nicolle Wallace soon discovers, Sarah Palin is not only inexperienced and ill-informed, she has serious issues with her public record and her personal behavior which jeopardizes the McCain/Palin ticket. Palin chastises Wallace for trying to inform her about current events and Wallace resigns from working with Palin out of disgust after multiple public embarrassments. As Palin stumbles through the debates and the Katie Couric interview, the polling numbers for McCain begin to drop and soon the campaign is in an unfortunate freefall from which it never recovers.

Game Change is as frightening as it is insightful. Watching Steve Schmidt and Nicolle Wallace try desperately to frame Sarah Palin as a viable candidate shows some internal political action that most of us are not privy to. That Schmidt becomes far more empathetic than Palin becomes exceptionally problematic for the narrative. That Palin is not an enjoyable or interesting character to watch makes for a troubling trend as far as the story goes. The viewer never starts rooting for Palin or McCain – even knowing the outcome of the election. Unlike Argo (reviewed here!), Game Change lacks real dramatic tension or characters who the viewer cares about.

Also problematic is the way that Game Change incorporates real historical footage with actors from the film. People like Katie Couric appear in historical footage and director Jay Roach replaces real footage of McCain and Palin with their actor counterparts. That makes for an awkward dialectic that is troubling to watch. There is not a seamless quality to flipping between real people and actors.

What Game Change has to make it truly shine is amazing acting. Ed Harris is a strong enough actor to make even a liberal like watching John McCain. Sarah Paulson and Peter MacNicol give amazing supporting performances as Nicolle Wallace and Rick Davis. Paulson says so much with her face that she makes the ending of the film truly land solidly.

Woody Harrelson is wonderful as Steve Schmidt. Having never seen any real, historical, footage of Schmidt, I have no idea how well his performance mimics the real person. However, Harrelson has gravitas on screen that completely sells his plausibility as a high-powered political operator. The story for Game Change, of course, is Julianne Moore. Moore plays Palin and the best possible compliment one can give her is that Moore always seems like she is playing Sarah Palin, not Tina Fey playing Sarah Palin.

On DVD, Game Change features a commentary track and a featurette, neither of which make Sarah Palin a more empathetic character. While Game Change shows how devastating watching Fey must have been for Sarah Palin, the film does little else to humanize the former vice presidential candidate and make the viewer care about her personal struggle . . . or the way she (arguably) cost John McCain the election.

For other works that are or were on HBO, please be sure to check out my reviews of:
Veep - Season 1
Game Of Thrones - Season 3
Girls - Season 1
True Blood - Season Five
Six Feet Under
Sex & The City - Season Three
Da Ali G Show
Jim Henson's The Storyteller


Check out how this film compares to others I have reviewed by visiting my Movie Review Index Page where the films are organized from best to worst!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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