I had high expectations for HBO’s Game Change after seeing an interview with Julianne Moore on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. I have to say I enjoyed the docudrama, but it lacked believability. Now Julianne Moore looked and sounded like Sarah Palin, even eerily so, and much more so than Tina Fey. And Ed Harris could easily be mistaken for McCain. He had all the mannerisms and the crotchetiness down. Woody Harrelson nailed Steve Schmidt who I have seen a number of times on MSNBC in his role as a political analyst. However, as convincingly as the principles played their roles, there was something missing or flat about the production; it may have been the shallowness of the script or the sloppy mix of real and obviously fake footage. I can’t put my finger on any one aspect. Having watched it all unfold during the 2008 campaign: Palin’s introductory speech, the debates, the two interviews, McCain’s defense of Obama, and all the drama in between as captured by the media, the events are still fresh in my memory. In short, the remake of reality in Game Change fell short.
Several observations are worth pointing out. First, McCain was portrayed as a principled, likeable, moderate maverick war hero who had little to do with the GOP defeat. The filmmakers seemed to place the blame squarely on everyone else: on Palin, Schmidt, the vetting process, the Republican National Committee for not having raised enough money, and on the media. Second, McCain was portrayed as the only person with a moral compass. He resisted the temptation to go negative until it was too late, which I found, frankly, hard to believe of a seasoned politician. Campaign manager Schmidt came off as a ruthless operative. In an unconvincingly emotional moment, the teary eyed, condescending speech writer (who I thought was actually going to burst out in laughter) confessed to Schmidt that she had not voted, that she couldn’t vote for Palin, she just couldn’t. Behind the scenes, Palin seemed unglued, paranoid and deranged most of the time, and much more concerned about her reputation in Alaska and her family than the campaign. I think the inner workings of the campaign were likely far more dynamic and the personalities infinitely more complex and interesting than portrayed on screen.
And finally Palin. I’m not a Sarah Palin fan at all, but I think she would have played herself more convincingly, that is to say, I think she’s a better actress than Julianne Moore. She is a natural entertainer with a flare for the dramatic, not unlike some talk show hosts on Fox, but less toxic than Beck who imploded, and Limbaugh who too has self-destructed. Game Change captured some of Palin’s many faults as a candidate, but did not capture her charismatic nature. While it fairly portrayed some of the events, I somehow think she got the short end of the stick.
Had Palin cooperated with the filmmakers, it might have been a different story. And had she listened to McCain’s advice not to be lured by the radical right, the GOP might still be relevant and competitive today. I’m not saying she single handedly brought the party to its knees, but she has been a destructive voice in American political discourse and has helped to radicalize the GOP. Turns out, stardom is intoxicating and a real game changer.