03.09.12

HBO’s ‘Game Change’ Goes Easy on Sarah Palin, John McCain in 2008 Saga

Where’s John McCain’s epic temper? Conservatives are railing, but HBO’s version of the bestseller is largely sympathetic to Sarah Palin and the preposterous 2008 Republican ticket.

If you’re a fan of Sarah Palin, or if you just haven’t followed the recriminations from John McCain staffers in the wake of the 2008 campaign, you will likely find Julianne Moore’s portrayal of her in the HBO movie Game Change to be sexist. It’s not just the depiction of her shocking ignorance—at one point, she has to be told that the Queen of England doesn’t conduct that country’s foreign policy, while at another, she is confused to hear that Saddam Hussein was not behind the September 11 attacks. She’s also absurdly vain, going on the Atkins diet in the middle of the race, which leaves her drawn and out of it.  Sometimes she appears on the verge of a nervous breakdown, angrily smearing her lipstick (“I hate this makeup!”) or murmuring, “I miss my baby. I miss sleeping with my baby.” It seems more a film about a demented ingénue than a politician.

In fact, though, the movie takes very few liberties with its source material, John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s bestselling, well-sourced campaign narrative of the same name. (One exception is the bit about the queen, which McCain adviser Steve Schmidt revealed in a separate interview.) Palin was such a preposterous candidate, so unbelievably empty-headed and dependent on flirtatious charm, that any accurate depiction of her risks seeming chauvinistic.

Some conservatives are miffed that the movie only focuses on one part of the book, eschewing the Democratic race entirely to tell a story about the McCain campaign coming to grips with the catastrophe of its vice-presidential pick. “HBO decided to focus on an out-of-office, former half-term governor of Alaska who was on the losing ticket in the 2008 election and isn’t running for anything today,” wrote Byron York in the Washington Examiner. Implicit in his complaint is an acknowledgment that the more attention is paid to Palin, the worse the GOP looks. 

It’s understandable that Republicans would rather not endure a dramatic reminder of this shameful episode. You can read, in Game Change, about how Palin, sometimes so perky and alive, would at other times fall into a “strange, blue funk,” how her eyes would go “glassy and dead.” But watching Moore’s Palin simply shut down and become nearly catatonic, unresponsive to the desperate entreaties of her panicked staffers, it becomes quite a bit more visceral. It certainly underlines McCain’s epic irresponsibility in seeking to elevate her to the vice presidency.

Game Change’s most interesting sympathies lie with Palin herself. Ironically, it will likely leave those who seriously dislike Palin feeling a bit less hostile to her.

The movie, however, makes little of that irresponsibility. In the end, the problem with Game Change isn’t that it’s too hard on Palin. It’s that it’s too easy on everyone else. Ed Harris’s John McCain is a paragon of rough-hewn, salty-tongued decency, so avuncular that when he learns what a disaster Palin is turning out to be, his main concern is for her welfare. McCain’s legendary temper, evident in the book, is wholly absent here, and whenever he has to attack Obama, it seems to pain him. Similarly, McCain’s campaign chief Steve Schmidt, played by Woody Harrelson, seems more incensed by right-wing demagoguery than by Democrats or the liberal media. Apparently, we’re supposed to believe that a guy who worked for Karl Rove and Dick Cheney is wholly without partisan rancor.

Game Change’s most interesting sympathies lie with Palin herself. Ironically, given conservative anger about the movie, it will likely leave those who seriously dislike Palin feeling a bit less hostile to her. Its depiction of her family is warm, almost idyllic, showing her, above all, as a doting mother with an adoring, humble husband. (It’s hard to believe, given her kids’ public crassness, that they’re really such sweethearts.) Moore shows the intense connections Palin forges with fans on rope lines, particularly other parents of kids with disabilities. “We never felt welcome to go anywhere before we saw you give that speech,” one grateful mother tells her.

Whipsawed between adoration and humiliation, it’s not surprising that Palin started to crack. In one particularly meta moment, Moore’s Palin watches, bristling, as Tina Fey turns her into a national laughingstock on television. Other times, you see her anxiety and embarrassment as she’s quizzed by staffers who can’t hide their incredulity about all she doesn’t know. Given all this, it makes sense that she took refuge in the messianic fantasies of her most ardent supporters. She could either believe herself a national joke or the second coming of Queen Esther—of course she chose the latter. Game Change suggests that Palin, at least at the start, was merely naïve, unlearned, and a little unstable, as opposed to grandiose, fanatical, and jingoistic. In the end, it’s a damning portrait that might also be a bit too kind.