March 13, 2012

THE SKED REVIEW: “Game Change”


On Saturday night, HBO’s GAME CHANGE scored the network’s highest premiere rating for an original TV-movie in 8 years.  (As it always the case with HBO, the movie will be rebroadcast many times, as well as being available on HBO GO and other platforms.)  While there were certainly A list names associated with the film–Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson, Ed Harris, director Jay Roach–this level of success is testament mostly to the fascination Americans of all political stripes have for Sarah Palin, who’s become a key figure in the history of this era, largely by bridging the gap between politics and reality television.

In our polarized age, it’s inescapably the case that any opinion on Palin or a movie about her is going to be viewed through a prism of politics, so I’ll confess here that I prefer to spend my spare time watching Jon Stewart over Rush Limbaugh (for many, many reasons).  Those on the other side of the ideological spectrum have been quite vocal themselves about their views on the movie’s accuracy and quality.
Game Change was based by screenwriter Danny Strong (he and Roach previously teamed on the Bush/Gore election story Recount) on Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s book, but while the book covers the entire 2008 Presidential election campaign, both Republican and Democratic, the film concentrates squarely on the Republican race (Obama and Clinton are seen only in news clips).  And really, John McCain (Harris) is a supporting character in his own campaign:  this is the story of Palin (Moore), and her dealings with campaign personnel, most notably senior advisors Steve Schmidt (Harrelson) and Nicolle Wallace (Sarah Paulson).
The movie’s portrayal of Palin is both searing and surprisingly compassionate:  intellectually, she’s utterly out of her depth, but she’s also belittled and patronized by McCain’s brass, who take her for granted and treat her like a slow child.  Moore’s performance is superb, not only as a piece of impersonation (Roach and Strong take the very big risk of showing Moore’s Palin watching Tina Fey’s Palin on TV, which would have sunk the movie into meta self-parody if not for the humanity Moore brings to the role), but by bringing out the complexities of Palin’s responses to her very public circumstances.  In any given moment, as Palin is trying and failing to keep up with the requirements of the race, we can see ambition, rage, desperation, pettiness, terror, self-satisfaction and sullenness dueling within her.  While no one could rationally want the woman depicted in this film to be anywhere near the White House other than on a tour (whatever your opinion on whether the depiction is valid), she clearly went through a lot of pain during the race, and Game Change acknowledges that.
Beyond Moore’s performance, Game Change is basically a smart, standard campaign tale, well shot and performed, but lacking the built-in drama of Recount‘s twists and turns.  There are lots of scenes of weathered political hands (Jamey Sheridan, Peter MacNichol and Bruce Altman play prominent colleagues of Harrelson) debating strategy and being cynical, with CNN and FOX News footage cut in to let us know where in the story we are.  Harrelson is very strong as Schmidt, and Paulson is exceptional as Wallace, as she tries to deal with Palin’s whims and shortcomings and finally has to throw in the towel.  Ed Harris, though, is slightly disappointing as McCain–despite excellent work from the make-up crew, he seems to put little effort into simulating the real candidate.  
HBO treats its TV-movies like feature films, and Game Change is handsome and well-produced in every way.  Roach, who’s made an interesting career out of alternating between big-budget studio comedies like Meet the Parents and these HBO projects (his next theatrical movie will attempt to combine the two with a political comedy that stars Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis), zips things along without sacrificing emotional intensity, and Strong’s script does a fine job of touching on all the key points of the Republican campaign without feeling too episodic. 
Partisans have–and will–reject (or for that matter too eagerly embrace) Game Change for reasons that have little to do with the quality of its filmmaking.  Looked at for the story it tells, it’s an absorbing, convincing tale of a very strange chapter in American politics.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."