As Republicans wage a sharply divisive presidential nominating contest, HBO is preparing to release a television film on the 2008 ascent of then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin that seems sure to reopen the wounds of that lost campaign and reignite controversy over Palin's fitness for office and the wisdom of putting her on the ticket.
"Game Change," based on the 2010 book of the same name by two journalists, is not due to premiere on the pay-cable channel until March 10, but already on Friday Palin's supporters were hitting back at its depiction of her as woefully unprepared to be a national candidate or be a heartbeat away from the presidency.
Former John McCain campaign aides depicted in the movie, including Steve Schmidt, the campaign's chief strategist, vouched for its accuracy in interviews with The Times this week.
"Game Change" shows Palin, portrayed by Julianne Moore, thrust on to the international stage, only for her handlers to belatedly discover the huge gaps in her knowledge of the world — ignorant of the Federal Reserve System, mistakenly believing Saddam Hussein ordered the 9/11 attacks against the United States and unaware that the prime minister, and not Queen Elizabeth II, ran the British government.
Some of the film's plot points will be familiar to those who read "Game Change," though some revelations will be new. Potentially more upsetting to Palin and her supporters is the way the film depicts the candidate's outbursts and periods of nonresponsiveness that lead aides to describe her as "catatonic" and possibly mentally unstable.
Schmidt and a chief Palin '08 aide, Nicolle Wallace, said they found it highly credible. Wallace said the film "captured the spirit and emotion of the campaign."
Palin, who resigned as Alaska governor in 2009 and has gone on to be an author, reality TV star and Fox News Channel contributor, remains a significant figure in the GOP despite her decision not to seek the presidential nomination this year. The crowd at last weekend's Conservative Political Action Conference greeted her speech with cheers, demonstrating her still strong appeal to conservative activists.
She and her followers already have begun denouncing the film, based on promotional trailers and accounts they have heard from others. Tim Crawford, treasurer of Palin's political action committee, had not seen the movie but on Friday released a statement saying HBO should label it a "fiction."
"I haven't seen HBO's latest effort at manipulating history," Crawford said. "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."
HBO noted the depth of research behind the movie and said in a statement: "HBO has a long track record of producing fact-based dramas, and our mantra has always been, 'get the story right.' We hope that people will withhold any judgment until they have viewed the film."
The Palin camp's response and a photo gallery of positive images from the campaign were posted Friday on the Sarah PAC website under the headline "Here They Go Again." Palin said on "Fox News Sunday" that she did not intend to see the movie and hoped others would not "waste their time" with the film. She also said "Game Change" was based on a "false narrative."
"This was a surreal experience for me," Schmidt said of the movie, in which he is played by actor Woody Harrelson. "Ten weeks of the campaign are condensed into a two-hour movie. But it tells the truth of the campaign. That is the story of what happened."
Since McCain's loss, the longtime Republican strategist has gradually been revealing more of his feelings about the lost election. The film vindicates the view he and many others around McCain had: the "high-risk, high-reward" choice of Palin, which Schmidt pushed for, had been a terrible mistake.
"My judgment was influenced by an ambition for victory, trying to figure out a way to win the race," Schmidt said from his Lake Tahoe home. "There is no question she helped to energize the campaign and to catapult John McCain into the lead. But the result was the nomination of someone who was fundamentally not qualified to be in the national command authority. That supersedes any short-term or long-term political advantage. Obviously, I have great regret over that."
Schmidt and most of the other top operatives from the McCain campaign gave extended interviews to John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, the book authors. Many of the same sources also spoke to Danny Strong, writer of the film, and to director Jay Roach, who also teamed on the Emmy-winning docudrama "Recount," about the razor's edge 2000 election finish. Chris Edwards, one of Palin's 2008 staffers, served as a technical advisor to the filmmakers.
Although the 427-page book "Game Change" is mostly devoted to inside accounts of other aspects of the 2008 race, the film focuses exclusively on the McCain-Palin campaign. It's already attracting attention in part because of the reputation of its three stars, Moore, Harrelson and Ed Harris, who plays McCain; all are past Academy Award nominees. Tom Hanks is among its executive producers.
The movie attempts to ratchet up the realism quotient by intercutting its acted scenes with news footage. Palin's fateful interview with then-CBS anchor Katie Couric, for example, alternates scenes of Moore's answers with video of Couric's actual questions. Then-Sens. Barack Obama, Joe Biden and others also appear in news footage.
Director Roach has called it a "dramatization," though in compressing events "it can't always be perfectly detail-accurate." Heilemann and Halperin served as consultants on the "Game Change" script and have cameos as journalists.
One jarring revelation in which the movie reaches beyond the book comes when Schmidt makes a query to assess nominee Palin's awareness of foreign affairs, asking McCain's VP pick how she would respond in the White House to news of waning British support for the war in Iraq.
The Palin character, sitting opposite Schmidt in a campaign bus, says McCain would "continue to have an open dialogue" with the queen of England on the subject. Flabbergasted, the Schmidt character informs her the queen is not the head of government. Palin asks who is. He informs her that the country has a prime minister.
Strong said he uncovered that additional episode during the 25 interviews he conducted with principals from Team McCain. Schmidt confirmed the account.
Though those new details will doubtless pop out at political observers, general audiences will likely be more attuned to the film's Pygmalion theme and considerable sweep — following Palin from her Alaska roots to her whirlwind vetting as a vice presidential candidate to her blockbuster GOP convention speech and then, downward, through her disastrously inarticulate interview with Couric, to a point where she openly feuds with staffers assigned to her team.
More than a few scenes depict her sympathetically. They show a deeply religious family matriarch who also feels intense loyalty to McCain. Another emotional wallop comes in the movie's re-creation of Palin's warm communion with families of special-needs children. The families flocked to Palin because of her devotion to her youngest son, who has Down syndrome.
In her own book "Going Rogue," Palin described the McCain campaign as defeatist, determined to script every moment and poorly organized. She wrote how she wanted to hit Democratic nominee Obama harder and to hone the party's focus on the economic crisis. Palin said she was not allowed to do the kind of free-wheeling, people-to-people campaigning that made her hugely popular with many voters.
"I was never in a funk," Palin told Fox's Chris Wallace when he asked her about the movie last weekend. "Thank God I have the right perspective on what really matters in life, Chris. And there's no need to ever be in a funk when you know what [the] right priorities are and what really matters."
One of the film's final notes will doubtless also stir the political waters. The McCain character is about to leave to deliver his concession speech when he calls the Palin character back and tells her: "You are one of the leaders of the party now, Sarah. Don't get co-opted by Limbaugh and the other extremists. They'll destroy the party if you let them."
McCain has told those close to him he is tired of rehashing the '08 loss. He said to an interviewer recently: "It will be a cold day in Gila Bend, Arizona, before I watch that movie."