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Game Change: Everything Old is Old Again

by Ethan Alter March 11, 2012 6:00 am
<i>Game Change</i>: Everything Old is Old Again

I finally got around to reading Game Change, John Heilemann and Mark Halperin's much buzzed-about recounting of the chaotic 2008 Presidential campaign, well after all the hype surrounding the book had died down. And to be honest, I didn't really get what all the fuss was about. Sure Heilemann and Halperin provided some juicy nuggets about what was going on behind-the-scenes on both the Democratic and Republican sides, but as a work of non-fiction, it was awkwardly structured, poorly sourced (the authors famously relied extensively on anonymous and off-the-record contributors) and didn't offer any profound insights into the contentious, turbulent year that the country had just lived through. At its worst, Game Change resembled an US Weekly version of a political book -- lots of gossip, not much substance.

The main thing that the book version of Game Change had going for it was its timeliness. Published a year after President Obama's inauguration, people and pundits were still eager for details about the personalities behind politicians like Obama, Hilary Clinton, John McCain and, of course, Sarah Palin. But in the almsot four years since the election (and the two years since the book's publication) we've learned probably more than we need to know about all of these folks and endlessly rehashed the anecdotes related in Game Change and the slew of inside-the-Beltway tell-alls that have been written in its wake. Which is a roundabout way of saying that the movie version of Game Change, which premiered on HBO last night, might have felt fresh had it hit the airwaves in 2010, but in 2012 it's just more of the same. If you've read the book, you've seen the movie. If you've watched cable news for the past four years, you've seen the movie. Hell, if you've watched The Daily Show since 2008, you've seen the movie. Cutting out the Obama/Clinton material entirely, Game Change devotes its two-hour running time to the McCain/Palin ticket and goes out of its way to acknowledge every single overly familiar story from the campaign trail as if the filmmakers were just ticking off items on a checklist. Palin not knowing the difference between North and South Korea? That's in here. Her disastrous interview with Katie Couric? That's restaged practically in its entirety. Tina Fey's killer impersonation of the Alaskan governor? That made it in too. The thing that's not here is any fresh analysis of what made Palin -- and the entire 2008 campaign -- the game changer that the title promises. It's imitation without insight.

That fundamental problem was shared by HBO's previous foray into political telefilms, Recount, which was also made by the Game Change duo of director Jay Roach and writer Danny Strong (who'll we'll forever adore for his work on Buffy, Gilmore Girls and Mad Men, but that doesn't change the fact that both of these scripts are weak). As with Recount, the only new wrinkle that Game Change adds to its well-worn material is the opportunity to see famous actors impersonate famous politicians and semi-famous political operatives. (The one saving grace of Recount, for example, was Laura Dern's spot-on turn as Katherine Harris.) So how does the Game Change ensemble do? Here are our grades for the individual performances:

Julianne Moore's Sarah Palin
Considering how popular Fey's outsized, yet strangely authentic, impersonation proved to be, Moore had big shoes to fill stepping into this role. But the actress acquits herself quite well, nailing Palin's voice and body language and also that resolute determination that she's right... even when she's completely, flagrantly wrong. Although the script keeps pushing her toward caricature, Moore mostly avoids going too broad with the role. Her performance isn't exactly sympathetic (which is appropriate), but it does feel human.
Most Authentic Moment: After a brief phone conversation with her soldier son Track, who has been deployed to Iraq, Palin happily says, "My son is safe." In that moment, she's not a political candidate -- just a mother who misses her child.
Overall Grade: A-

Ed Harris' John McCain
Harris is one of our great character actors, but his performance as McCain is disappointingly superficial. Besides not getting his subject's physicality right (McCain famously has trouble using his right arm due to his time as a POW in Vietnam, but that's not replicated here), the actor walks through every scene with the same glum expression and gruff line readings. He seems less like John McCain than an older, grumpier version of Harris' John Glenn impersonation from The Right Stuff.
Most Authentic Moment: McCain cracks up while watching that famous YouTube video of John Edwards grooming himself before an interview. It's the only time in the movie where Harris appears to smile.
Overall Grade: C+

Woody Harrelson's Steve Schmidt
Perhaps because his character is a less well-known public figure -- as McCain's campaign manager, Schmidt was on the news a lot, but he was never subjected to the same kind of scrutiny as his candidates -- Harrelson ends up delivering the most nuanced performance of the three leads. In a way, Game Change is really Schmidt's story, as he realizes with increasing horror just how big a mistake he made by suggesting Palin's name as a possible VP candidiate.
Most Authentic Moment: The look of abject terror on his face when a conversation with Palin reveals she knows next to nothing about world history, foreign politics... or almost anything.
Overall Grade: A

Sarah Paulson's Nicolle Wallace
Tasked with getting Palin ready for primetime, Wallace instead repeated runs up against the Alaskan governor's stubbornness and self-absorption. As written, Paulson's primary job is to stand around staring incredulously as Moore-as-Palin melts down in front of her eyes. She's more of a talking prop than a character.
Most Authentic Moment: Wallace breaks down crying on Election Night, confessing to Schmidt that she couldn't bring herself to vote for her own candidates.
Overall Grade: C-

David Barry Gray's Todd Palin
A fascinating movie could be made about Mr. Sarah Palin, who has an equally odd and checked history, to say nothing of questionable beliefs. But in Game Change, he's mostly confined to the background, popping up every now and then to provide moral support to his struggling wife, like some kind of TV sitcom husband. Too bad -- according to other gossipy books (like Joe McGinniss' The Rogue), their real relationship is a lot more weird, complex and interesting.
Most Authentic Moment: Giving his wife a quick bedroom pep talk about her debating skills before they both turn in for the night.
Overall Grade: B-

Melissa Farman's Bristol Palin
The eldest Palin daughter has emerged as a semi-celebrity in her own right thanks to appearances on Dancing with the Stars and her upcoming Lifetime reality series. But in her brief screentime, Farman plays her as a typical whiny teenager... which, to be fair, she probably was at the time.
Most Authentic Moment: Watching her mother bomb the Couric interview with a mixture of embarrassment and sympathy.
Overall Grade: C+

Justin Gaston's Levi Johnston
It's a shame that the filmmakers didn't enlist Johnston to play himself -- since his Hollywood career failed to materialize, the dude almost certainly has time on his hands. At least Gaston gets his mix of wide-eyed sincerity and total ignorance just right in his one big scene.
Most Authentic Moment: Expressing regret about the fact that he had to cut off his mullet while greeting Palin backstage before her big speech at the Republican National Convention.
Overall Grade: B

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