HBO's Game Change Comes Up a Bit Short
by Joseph Burke
Highly anticipated, Game Change ultimately falls flat, but not because it is not entertaining enough in a superficial way. The story of Sarah from Alaska and her ascension to the national stage is an unpleasant story of unpleasant people trying to do very unpleasant things. Maybe playing it for real laughs would have redeemed it.
Most Americans probably don't spend every day watching MSNBC or Fox News and don't poor over Talking Points Memo, Politico or the Drudge Report everyday, all day. But if they did, they could not help but notice that the HBO "true-life" political drama, Game Change made its debut on Saturday evening. One the most highly anticipated political thrillers in years, the hype was only helped by the campaign from Sarah Palin and her SarahPAC followers to condemn the movie as "fact change" and historical fiction. One might anticipate that she does not come off too well in the drama. The tale of the Presidential race between Senators John McCain and Barack Obama is the stuff of history, but this cartoonish, self-parody is certainly not the way most of us would prefer to access it.
There is a superficial quality to Game Change that makes it more lightweight political entertainment than expected and the operative word is "game." We get a portrait that is from the viewpoint of Steve Schmidt and Nicole Wallace, Republican operatives. It is amazing to thing that these highly-paid so-called experts are so shallow and cavalier with the nature of their work. Schmidt is just a political hack, but Wallace worked in the White House, for gosh sakes, albeit in the Bush Administration. How could one expect the candidates themselves to be anything more than almost-there representation of leaders? With advisors like the candy stripers that ran the McCain campaign, how can one imagine that they had any chance to win the election. Early on Steve Schmidt blames their problems on "YouTube and the 24-hour news cycle." He seems oblivious to the fact that his candidate never offered a single substantive policy statement. "Crash" McCain was never a good candidate for President. And the people who work for him are no better. It is similar to how the Republicans in 2012 can't seem to be anything other than the gang that can't shoot straight, staggering along from one catastrophic screwup to the next one.
The "game change" of Sarah Palin's selection as the Vice Presidential nominee was not to alter the chemistry between McCain and Obama, but rather as a desperate attempt to resuscitate a campaign on cardiac arrest. It is never quite explained why the McCain troops only had five days to vet Palin, except that they wanted the announcement to fall hard on the Democratic Convention aftermath and steal Obama's thunder. Then their Faustian bargain had two months of a unsuitable, unqualified candidate exposed to the most intense scrutiny possible. What might have happened if they had waited, vetted her thoroughly and then waited for their own convention to announce her... or someone else? It is amusing that so many of the original "actors" in this story are force to stick to a script that Palin was qualified and that her selection didn't cost McCain the election. One interesting revelation in the movie was the fact that Steve Schmidt himself came up with the idea of suspending the campaign during the financial collapse. That move alone cost more damage to McCain that any bungle of Palin's. That, and the resulting skipping of the Letterman show to rush to Washington, but then not exactly.
A particularly loathsome aspect of Game Change is to relive the nasty, seamy mode of campaigning that desperation brought the Republicans to near the end. Listening to the disgusting crowds at their rallies yelling out "Muslim", "Socialist" and "Kill him!" is just a reminder of the thin layer of the right way manics that nowadays form the bedrock of the GOP, with the self-same Sarah Palin their gun-toting, Bible-thumping, know-nothing cheerleader.
Now we have learned so much of the dark side of Palin's career, the cronyism, the score-settling, the corruption, the deceptions all nicely wrapped up in the American flag with a pair of pumps and lipstick. The "revelations" of Game Change are pretty tame stuff. Sure Sarah gets her publicist fired but did not yet have a chance to use the apparatus of office to harass her. Of course, when it comes to cronyism, it would be hard to imagine her doing anything as awful as George W. Bush attempting to appoint Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court. Sarah ultimately resigned from the Governorship of Alaska a year later because there were so many ethical violations stacking up against and there was so much virulent opposition to her in Alaska. It certainly seemed like she was on to something when she demanded that the campaign provide her with a poll measuring her popularity in Alaska.
Much was made of the idea that this movie would provide us a more sympathetic Palin. Um... nope. She felt that it was God's plan that she would be selected and I guess she assumed that God would put the proper words in her mouth as he did Moses as he made his demands on Pharaoh. It was only later that she learned to write her crib notes on her hand. Much was made of the performance of Julianne Moore in her impersonation of Palin but this also suffered from superficiality. Ed Harris gave a cynical glint to McCain that lent humor to a very humorless figure. Woody Harrelson never really has learned how to act and Lord knows his continuing employment in the motion picture industry is a mystery of Biblical proportions.
Much was made of the script, but the attempt to achieve a pseudo-Sorkin quality of repartee fell flatter than a Palin appearance on Fox News. A sensation now, this movie will not join the group of films that have examined and defined our political processes. Earlier in the day, Current Tv carried the Robert Redford film, The Candidate. No comparison.
But, At a some point, somewhere about the time that Palin "went rogue," I looked at my friend watching with me and said, "I hope to God these people don't win the Presidency." Now that is something worth remembering! How close these cynical clowns came to winning! And maybe the lesson of Game Change is how easy it is for smoke-and-mirrors combined with a moronic voting base to conjure up a campaign like this. As if we hadn't learned it eight years earlier with the Bush Campaign or twenty-eight years earlier with the campaign of Ronald Reagan. Who it might be noted was mentioned as the hero of Sarah Palin and Steve Schmidt.