HBO’s Game Change isn’t the first time director Jay Roach and writer Danny Strong have tackled American electoral politics, and it’s not the first time they’ve portrayed women in politics either. Their first collaboration, Recount, about the contested 2000 presidential election, featured Laura Dern as Katherine Harris, whose gauche gaudiness dropped into the middle of the film’s strategic maneuvering came across as the antics of some kind of grotesque buffoon played for dissonant laughs. Game Change handles Sarah Palin (Julianne Moore) with a bit more aplomb, preferring sober psychological study to broad caricature. But it’s precisely in its straight-ahead characterization that the film lays bare its contempt for the political theater on display. It’s confident that Saturday Night Live-level mockery is unnecessary to highlight the absurdity of what’s being proffered to the American public—and what that public is eating up.
Adapted from the book of the same name by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, the film discards its source’s other lines of electoral reportage to focus solely on the travails of the John McCain presidential campaign’s selection of Palin as a running mate. Though the filmmakers stress the accuracy of the film’s content and how closely it hews to the facts, the veracity of the details in a docudrama like this are perhaps less important than what the sum of those details evokes. No matter how effortlessly Moore seems to inhabit Palin’s voice and mannerisms, or however often she’s integrated into actual interview and campaign footage, no one with any sort of critical eye is going to walk away from this film and claim that “it is as it was.” But the film is preoccupied less with dishing out insider campaign gossip and more with positioning the Palin phenomenon as a tragic emblem of a crisis of authenticity in the American republic.
Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson), McCain’s top campaign advisor, at first seems the bearer of that kind of authenticity—a sharp-witted strategist who’s prone to waxing Sorkinesque poetry about the nobility of the Republic. We see Palin mostly from the outside and mostly through Schmidt’s eyes as he initially supports the Palin pick as a “high risk, high reward” maneuver necessary to wrest momentum away from the Obama juggernaut. At one point, the McCain campaign is compared to a bad reality show, and Palin’s arc is molded to that template, starting with the casting: The campaign tries to find the right woman for the ticket by hitting up Google and YouTube, and we first encounter Palin on a screen within a screen, a bolt of lightning in the midst of less flashy competitors. But Schmidt and advisor Nicolle Wallace (Sarah Paulson) spend the rest of the campaign dealing with the unforeseen consequences of that hasty, fast-tracked pick as they realize they hitched themselves to a candidate who seemed promising on the surface, but may not have the substance or the wherewithal for the White House.
Game Change lives in the reaction shot: in capturing the eyes of mute staffers on the sidelines witnessing the clashes of personality, in lingering on Schmidt and Wallace and John McCain (Ed Harris) as they watch Palin on TV, and in focusing on Palin herself as she’s asked questions and struggles for answers. We spend a lot of time looking into pairs of eyes, and in most of them we can see the wheels turning: they’re contemplating, strategizing, reflecting—especially McCain, whom Harris paints in slightly more flattering tones as a tragic patriarch, one of the old guard who tries to wage an honorable campaign, but inevitably makes one compromise too many. When he’s not being played as a comically crotchety septuagenarian in his boxers dropping profanities, he’s stepping out of the shadows to deliver nuggets of wisdom to the characters, reminding them that Palin needs to spend time with her family, or that Obama is a decent human being, or that Rush Limbaugh will destroy the Republican Party.
But when we look into Palin’s eyes, it’s different. Perhaps it’s a testament to the depth of Moore’s performance that when we look into those eyes, there’s no depth there. She’s Chance the gardener brought to life and thrown into the national spotlight as a character ready-made for television and its utter focus on the surface to the exclusion of everything else. We first see Palin on a computer screen, and she continually monitors the TV news channels, hoping for the approval of the talking heads and often coming up empty. One of the film’s most uncanny moments is when we’re watching Moore as Palin watching Tina Fey as Palin; though the scene bears the anxiety of proving how realistic Moore’s portrayal is compared to the caricature, it also illuminates the anxiety of a woman watching her identity being constructed and deconstructed on an endless sea of TV channels and screens. “YouTube is making it infinitely worse,” laments Schmidt after Palin’s poor showing in her Katie Couric interview.
A heartwarming moment Palin shares with a special-needs child also frames Wallace’s role handling Palin as that of a special needs teacher, or at least that of a tutor with an especially recalcitrant ward; she struggles to get Palin to stop checking her cellphone long enough to be briefed on the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Trying to break through Palin’s silent sulking so that they can prepare for an interview, Wallace grasps at straws and eventually settles on complimenting the color of Palin’s jacket. “I hate it,” she responds. In their interactions, we see Wallace’s slide from her initial enthusiasm over the charming Palin toward the disappointment of a majordomo charged with grooming a VP candidate who has to be shown where Germany is located on a map.
On the other side of that equation, we find the film’s psychological assessment of Palin as a candidate doing her best to surmount the challenges in front of her. But she’s overwhelmed by the amount of knowledge demanded of her—facts like “What is NAFTA?,” represented by an ever-growing pile of note cards that seem impossible for her to internalize—and the intense media scrutiny placed on her and her family. When a staffer gravely reports, “She constantly slips into these catatonic stupors,” it’s most likely not intended to be a laugh line, but when considering a candidate for the second-highest office in the land, it’s difficult for it not to be. The film plays with trapped, claustrophobic imagery: the cramped quarters of hotel rooms, furtive conversations in janitor’s closets, and reaching a kind of frenzy in framing Palin’s meltdown behind the railing bars of a Hitchcockian stairwell stretching down toward an endless abyss. At times it wants to show sympathy for Palin’s struggle; at others it wants to remind us of its absurdity.
There’s something bizarre and acutely disturbing about the way Palin’s husband reassures her by recalling that she already won an election over an opponent who knew his facts and data, but to the unwashed masses of the electorate, “none of what he said mattered because no one knew what he was talking about.” That kind of uncanny dread is draped over the film’s inverted Stand and Deliver moment: a montage of Palin preparing for the vice-presidential debate, something that would be inspirational except that it’s also the moment when she gives up trying to learn about stuff and instead memorizes the nice-sounding talking points. She talks to herself in empty platitudes, she talks to the public in empty platitudes—and she triumphs. The high point of Palin’s campaigning is when Schmidt stops treating her like an actual candidate and instead as an actress to be fed lines; it’s when everyone learns to stop worrying and love the emptiness.
It’s also when the film reveals the true object of its contempt, and it’s not Palin. She’s just a symptom; but the crowds that she draws, the ones that yell to kill the Muslim socialist Obama, the ones that Schmidt and Wallace and McCain look upon with a kind of fear as if they’ve unleashed a monster—they’re the disease. In one of McCain’s wise-old-sage moments, he intones that “there’s a dark side to American populism,” and regardless of how factual the rest of the film is, that’s one truth that’s driven home quite clearly. There’s a deep, cynical irony in a scene where McCain’s top advisors commiserate in a darkened barroom (that in an earlier era would surely have been smoke-filled), wishing that they could elect the next Abraham Lincoln. “Unfortunately, that’s not the way it works anymore,” they mutter, seemingly oblivious to the fact that they are some of the people who made it work that way.