'Game Change' Premiere: Director Jay Roach Defends His HBO Sarah Palin Film as Balanced

Jay Roach Headshot 2011
Kevin Winter/Getty Images for AFI

CULVER CITY, CA - JUNE 10:  AFI Board Member Jay Roach arrives at the 38th AFI Life Achievement Award honoring Mike Nichols held at Sony Pictures Studios on June 10, 2010 in Culver City, California. The AFI Life Achievement Award tribute to Mike Nichols will premiere on TV Land on Saturday, June 25 at 9PM ET/PST.

HBO co-president Richard Plepler says viewers will find the movie "surprisingly empathetic," while Roach also compares politics to professional wrestling.

NEW YORK - HBO top executives and makers of HBO Films' Game Change on Wednesday defended the film about the John McCain-Sarah Palin Republican campaign 2008 as fair and balanced.

"I am committed to telling the true story. The first obligation is to get the story right," director and executive producer Jay Roach told THR ahead of the well-received premiere at the venerable Ziegfeld Theater in midtown Manhattan when asked about criticism from Palin's camp. "This is a true story, so you better deliver a true story, because the audience is going to sense it if it some kind of a politically motivated agenda piece. It is not going to be a great story - it is going to be propaganda. The audience is smart enough to know the difference."

While Palin and her supporters have called the film fiction and a product of "liberal Hollywood," Roach said: "This story is very carefully researched. It is very much from the point of view of Republicans who cared about what they are doing and cared about their country."

How does he feel about the "liberal Hollywood" tag? "That's a tendency in modern politics to smear the messenger even when the message is true," he said. "Part of that tactic is to put a big label on a group and try to define them as some sort of conspiracy, some kind of common enemy. And it's obviously a fallacity and a horrible bit of disinformation."

Roach argued that the film is much more focused on politics' showbiz factor. "Now politics is like a reality show," he told THR. "It's like World Wrestling [Entertainment] - except for the capes and masks. I think it's a real question whether the political system is really serving the people by becoming so much about the show." 

HBO co-president Richard Plepler expressed hope that people would see the film to form an opinion. "I think a lot of people who are criticizing the movie haven't seen it," he told THR. "And when people see the movie, I think they will see that it is surprisingly empathetic to Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin. And I think people across political lines will be very taken by the film."

Some critics have pointed out that the movie doesn't touch on the conflicts between Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton that the book Game Change included. "It's merely a question of time," Plepler said. "How can you tell a particular thing in two hours. Danny picked this, and when people see the movie, I think they'll agree it was a good choice."

John Heilemann, co-author of Game Change, echoed that the decision was made to focus on a compelling story. "I don't make movies, I don't really understand how it works," he told THR. "But the Clinton-Obama story, which is central to the book, you can't do it in two hours. HBO looked at it, but it would have been a mini series...The story they picked is 60 days, two chapters in the book - a nice, tight narrative."

He emphasized that the rationale made sense to him and co-author Mark Halperin (who is already working with him on a book sequel about the 2012 campaign, about which the authors and HBO said they are open to consider it for another film). "They explained that to us, and we were like yeah," Heilemann said. "We just wanted something to get made, and we are as happy with this as with anything else."

Added Halperin: "This is not a polarizing or political movie. I hope people who have concerns about it see the movie. I think if they do, a lot of them, maybe most of them, will see that it is a fair movie - and a movie that is more about the struggles and successes of someone dealing with a very tough situation."

Some at the premiere predicted that Mitt Romney would clinch the Republican presidential nomination. But Roach and some others said they aren't sure as they don't have a crystal ball. "It's fascinating to see so many divergent profiles within one party," said Roach. "And I think that is very healthy for any party - Republicans or Democrats, because it forces people in that party to really think about what they stand for."

What are his thoughts on conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh who's recently gotten himself in hot water and has lost advertisers? "I haven't followed that," Roach said. "We have been on this so much that I actually don't know anything about it. Someone actually just asked about it, but I haven't kept track and don't have a comment on it."

Also among the premiere crowd were executive producer Tom Hanks, Julianne Moore who stars as Sarah Palin, Gayle King and various others. Ed Harris and Woody Harrelson weren't in attendance.

But Plepler before the screening welcomed the real Republican advisor Steve Schmidt, played by Harrelson, in the audience, asking him to "please take a bow."

Moore also got a big welcome applause when Plepler cited her  "stunning performance" and said, "she is simply magnificent."

Email: Georg.Szalai@thr.com

Twitter: @georgszalai