Among the numerous scary moments in HBO's "Game Change"—most having to do with how little vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin knew about current affairs or foreign policy—one stands out.
"The news is no longer meant to be important," says Steve Schmidt, a top adviser for Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain. "It's just entertainment."
Schmidt goes on to explain what American politics has become: an over-funded machine that’s more interested in finding a charismatic “star” to court the voters than someone with knowledge and experience—someone qualified to lead the nation.
And then he goes along with it, championing the Alaska governor as the perfect choice to help McCain battle the star power of Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential race.
Adapted from a portion of the book by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, “Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime,” “Game Change” (8 p.m. Saturday, HBO; 4 stars) is less about Palin than it is about this sad state of political affairs.
Sure, the complaint is nothing new; but it’s what struck me the most about the movie written by Danny Strong and directed by Jay Roach, who last teamed up on HBO’s “Recount.”
That message made an impression, as did two amazing performances, beginning with Julianne Moore’s uncanny and nuanced portrayal of Palin.
Much of it is hair, makeup and mimicry—Moore has said she worked with dialect coaches and parroted YouTube videos of Palin to prepare—but Moore finds the heart behind the political performer. Despite what the real Palin’s camp is saying, this isn't a slash-and-burn portrait. It’s so sympathetic at times, I can’t imagine even the most stalwart Palin critic wouldn’t feel for her. In one scene, as Palin watches Tina Fey mock her on “Saturday Night Live,” Moore shows her pain at being ridiculed in front of a national audience.
Moore also taps into Palin’s steely determination to protect her family and later, when the campaign begins to implode, to not be sidelined or silenced. Palin doesn’t understand why McCain’s advisers won't let her do what she does best, which is talk to real folks, and Moore channels all the conflicting emotions of that struggle.
Woody Harrelson nearly steals the movie as strategist Schmidt, who eventually comes to regret advising McCain (Ed Harris, also excellent) to choose Palin as his running mate. Harrelson portrays Schmidt as a man determined to achieve victory for his candidate. But his focus on gamesmanship and working the media over issues or ideology blinds him to the reality of his mistake until it is too late.
His ferocious support of Palin results in her not being properly vetted by the campaign, and land mines begin exploding, land mines like the infamous Katie Couric interview in which Palin couldn’t name a newspaper she read regularly and the “scandals” such as the discovery that her unmarried teen daughter was pregnant.
Palin, of course, is furious that her daughter is brought into the political debate. Strong and Roach use the instance as another of many examples of how politics works these days. It uses the 24-hour news cycle and gets bit in the butt by it, and the public consumes every fresh fix of rhetoric, charges, half-truths and personal attacks until the real issues are forgotten.
Is Schmidt right, and it is just entertainment? If you believe “Game Change,” the answer is, “You betcha.”