Review: HBO's 'Game Change'

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As the Republican primary heats up,
HBO is mining recent history from the last presidential
campaign with Game Change, a behind-the-scenes
look at Sarah Palin’s selection as
the 2008 Republican vice presidential

Though Palin’s candidacy is the
topic, the story is told from the
point of view of staffers of the
campaign of then-GOP candidate
John McCain — particularly Steve
Schmidt (Woody Harrelson), his
senior political adviser. Though
based on John Heilemann and
Mark Halperin’s 2008 book of
the same title, the telefilm doesn’t pick up until after
President Obama has clinched the nomination from
Hillary Clinton (an account of that primary battle could
make quite a movie in its own right).

As the film opens, Schmidt is watching thencandidate
Obama address a huge crowd in Berlin,
Germany — a development that shakes up Schmidt,
especially as his pro-McCain message, “Do you want
a statesman or a celebrity?” is failing to gain traction.

Game change

Eventually, Schmidt convinces McCain (Ed Harris)
and the rest of his team to go after the “high-risk,
high-reward” option of putting Palin on the ticket and
the troops are dispatched to Alaska to vet the governor,
then 18 months into her term. After just a few
days of vetting, the candidate (Julianne Moore) is
introduced to the public, and the fireworks begin.

If Game Change reminds viewers of Recount
HBO’s 2008 telefilm on the 2000 Bush-Gore election
— it’s because it comes from the same team
of director Jay Roach and writer Danny Strong, and
because they once again rely on actual news footage
from the time interspersed with the movie’s action
(as well as cameos by CNN’s Anderson Cooper and
Dana Bash).

For instance, when the vice presidential debate
rolls around, through the magic of Hollywood, Moore
appears on stage with Joe Biden himself – that
is, footage from the actual debate. Moore is also
spliced into actual footage of
Palin’s crucial CBS Evening News
interview with Katie Couric. It’s
a mostly effective tactic, and
the clips also drive the action,
though given that we’re only going
back four years into the past,
some of the context bogs down
the pace of the film.

Moore does a more than credible
job as Palin — as plausible
as Tina Fey, without the caricature
(and interestingly, there’s more than one scene
of a displeased Palin watching Fey’s portrayal on
Saturday Night Live). The former Alaska governor
comes across as thin-skinned, poorly informed and
as not handling the trappings of her newfound fame
very well — until she hits the campaign stump.

Moore’s Palin probably won’t sit too well if your
politics tilt to the right, but Harris’s McCain comes
across more positively, even if he’s not quite as uncanny
as Moore. (Harris is 61, and you can see the
10-year age difference between actor and subject
pretty plainly on screen.) But the real top-of-the-ticket
performances go to Harrelson and Sarah Paulson as
Nicolle Wallace, the McCain adviser tasked with the
day-to-day handling of Palin.

With all that inside baseball, political wonks will
love Game Change, though it doesn’t say much that
hasn’t already been said about the 2008 White
House race. If you’re already tired of presidential
politics this election cycle, however, it might not be
your idea of must-see TV.