It should come as no surprise that Jay Roach’s Game Change, the comedy director’s depiction of Sarah Palin’s ascent to national prominence, essentially unfolds as a backstage drama lightly peppered with some forgettable inside baseball. Adapted from John Hellemann and Mark Halperin’s book of the same name by Danny Strong (who also scripted Roach’s hanging-chad drama Recount), the film sees campaign strategist Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson) as the tragic ringmaster for the catastrophe that followed the endorsement of Palin (Julianne Moore) as the running mate for erstwhile presidential candidate John McCain (Ed Harris). And as much as all the researchers, assistants, speech writers, publicists, strategists, secretaries, and gophers, all ably played by a uniformly excellent cast, talk a lot of politics, the blindingly obvious allegory here is of Hollywood: The underlings of various importance might as well be producers, script writers, gaffers, camera men, cinematographers, runners, and production designers.
Let’s get one bit of business out of the way first: Moore’s impression of Palin, though quite respectable in its attempts at fleeting “realism” and restraint, is inherently flawed. Palin has become so adept at playing an overblown caricature of herself, both as a conservative revolutionary and as an old-fashioned family woman, that Moore has no choice but to practice restraint, lest she come off like Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live. Even so, Moore’s understated performance is the best, liveliest part of the film, which makes the timidity of Roach’s direction and the lack of real insight in Strong’s congested script seem all the more glaring.
Schmidt, a lifelong Republican strategist, is ultimately the moral center and overarching focus of Game Change, but there’s no denying that the film often feels like a covert love letter to Barack Obama and a paean to the strength of the Democrats. The president can only be seen in various clips of news footage, but his presence and charm are omnipresent in every discussion in the film. His unparalleled ability to unify his party is seen in stark contrast to all the Republican infighting, from Peter MacNicol’s Rick Davis squaring off against Jamey Sheridan’s Mark Salter to Sarah Paulson’s Nicole Wallace calling foul on Palin and Ron Livingston’s Mark Wallace attempting to coax answers out of the governor. And if McCain is (unconvincingly) written as a weathered professional of near-Buddhist tolerance, his calm hand never seems to have any effect on anyone but Schmidt, already identified as the voice of reason.
Schmidt’s increasing incapability to control his “star,” even at the behest of McCain, is meant to speak directly to a mutation in modern politics of style over substance, but Game Change offers no newfound or even witty insight into the long trail that has led to both the news media and politics becoming celebrity-driven enterprises. Furthermore, it evades every chance to cohesively build Palin’s addiction to her public persona through connections with constituents or glimpses of personal reflection, making her bratty behavior following interviews with Katie Couric and Charles Gibson feel shallow; the film’s position that she simply wasn’t smart enough is at once factually convincing and dramatically limp. Indeed, Roach’s brand of West Wing-lite realism and mere filmic competence allows him to forego any personal investment in the film’s themes or tepid opinions, aside from the weariness evident in Schmidt from having to oversee the entire campaign.
But then, at the film’s climactic confrontation between Palin and Schmidt, there’s just the briefest glimpse of a genuinely intriguing and complex idea, having largely to do with Palin’s image as a revolutionary. Upon her announcement that she intends to make a concession speech along with McCain, Schmidt gives her a blunt talking to, explaining that only the top of the ticket speaks during a concession and that’s just how things are done. Here, the tug of war between bucking the establishment and gaining acceptance as the new establishment is plainly laid out, and in Palin’s case, the latter obviously holds more water. Other scenes, mostly at rallies, speak to Palin’s hand in the genesis of the Tea Party and the Birther movement, but Roach is only minutely interested in the ugliness, violence, and stupidity that empty radical rhetoric often fosters.
Roach’s bland style and Strong’s script never allow for anything to come of such challenging subjects, opting instead for uninventive hindsight. We see no foreshadowing or have any sense that wise McCain will give into the same temptations as Palin, suggesting a complacent ignorance that’s hard to forgive. Still, the most egregious fault to be found here is that Roach and Strong succumb to the same indulgences as the news media they’re so happy to critique. As the news slants more toward entertainment and opinion to beg controversy and popular engagement, so do movies like Game Change employ messy, selective factuality to lend timeliness, credence, and urgency to turgid drama. The chances of any cinematic treatment of the Palin fiasco having the societal-id-skewing chops of Nailin’ Palin, the popular porno parody, is terrifically unlikely, but a swing and a miss remains far more preferable to an easy bunt.