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Game Change: TV Review

Republican Ticket
Phillip V. Caruso/HBO

The Bottom Line

Great performances probably won't help this film bridge the partisan divide.

Airdate

9 p.m. March 10 (HBO)

Cast

Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson, Ed Harris

Director

Jay Roach

This review originally appeared in the March 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

It's nearly impossible to make a political film based on real-life events without immediately polarizing one side. We are a fiercely partisan country that has never let facts get in the way of perception. We see what we want to see, and if someone, some book, some film or some cable news channel tries to distort the image we want to see, there will be blowback and outrage.

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Which brings us to HBO's Game Change, a film focusing on 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain's choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate and the fallout that ensues.

Despite virtuoso (and likely Emmy-winning) performances from Julianne Moore as Palin, Woody Harrelson as McCain's strategist Steve Schmidt and Ed Harris as McCain, there will be charges of left-leaning Hollywood bias in the portrayals.

"I haven't seen HBO's latest effort at manipulating history," Tim Crawford, a top aide to Palin, told The Washington Post on Feb. 17. "However, based upon the description and reports from people who have viewed the film Game Change, HBO has distorted, twisted and invented facts to create a false narrative and attract viewers. They call it a docu-drama; there is little 'docu' in it. HBO must add a disclaimer that this movie is fiction."

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And so it begins.

Based on the best-seller of the same name by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, Game Change was directed by Jay Roach and written by Danny Strong, the duo behind another HBO political film, 2008's Recount.

The film isn't trying to break ground with revelations, so what it comes down to is whether Game Change is a good movie, as opposed to a balanced documentary. For the most part, it is.

While Moore manages to nail the Palin character without being a mere caricature (a la Tina Fey, whose Saturday Night Live bits appear in the film), it's Harrelson as Schmidt and Sarah Paulson as senior adviser Nicolle Wallace who provide the film's behind-the-scenes drive. If the conceit is that McCain needed a game-changer to battle the charismatic Barack Obama, then picking Palin had a "high-risk, high-reward" element, made more so by the fact that she had to be vetted in five days, instead of the normal weeks-long process. Mistakes were made in the vetting, and as Schmidt, who lobbied McCain to pick Palin, and Wallace, who was in charge of prepping her for the press assault to come, both realize how out of her depth Palin is, the drama ratchets skyward.

In the process, interesting strands to the storytelling evolve. First, Palin becomes a sympathetic figure as she's pulled away from her family and tossed into a situation she isn't equipped to handle. National ridicule and the explosion of stories about her family begin to take their toll, and Moore effectively mines that vulnerable territory. While she's doing that, Game Change boldly raises the question about whether Palin is mentally unbalanced. The right will no doubt see that as twisting the knife. It's not until later, when Palin "goes rogue" and is more engulfed by fame (and increasing power), that you begin to hold her lack of intellectual gravitas against her. And again, Moore's transformation into the more confident -- and dangerous -- Palin is spot-on.

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It would be hard to call the portrayal sympathetic, however. The movie is told mostly through the eyes of Schmidt, whose gamble backfired, and his disdain for Palin grows exponentially as the story progresses.

McCain comes off best here, a maverick whose greatest flaw is how ambition blinds his natural political acumen. Even when he realizes Palin is a liability, the depiction is more sage and fatherly than embittered. The worst that could be said of McCain in the movie is that he, too, is complicit in the rash decision, and he allows himself to be steered too easily in pursuit of the White House.

Schmidt's role is the most interesting -- and ultimately damning for Palin, given that his interview on 60 Minutes at the end of the film lays the blame at her feet. Paulson's Wallace portrayal also is a blunt hammer to the Palin camp, as her nuanced patience with Palin runs out when she sees her transform from neophyte to loose cannon. That undoubtedly will be perceived as lefty spin, no matter how exceptional Paulson's performance, particularly because of the blatant comparison to Hillary Clinton's accomplishments.

And that's the ultimate problem with Game Change. It's a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at politics -- as long as you're a Democrat (or a Republican willing to admit that Palin was a blunder -- but even then, the other elements will likely put you off). And yet, credit Game Change for at least trying to dramatize that moment in time. It is, for the left especially, an indictment of anti-intellectualism and our inherently flawed system for choosing our leaders.

Airdate 9 p.m. March 10 (HBO)
Cast Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson, Ed Harris
Director Jay Roach