There is a truly heartbreaking moment in “Game Change,” the HBO film about Sarah Palin’s run for vice president. It comes after Palin (Julianne Moore) has made her galvanizing speech at the Republican National Convention accepting the nomination as John McCain’s (Ed Harris) running mate and is drawing jaw-dropping crowds to her meet and greets. Footage is shown of the people waiting hours to meet her, including one rather large and nondescript woman who looks straight at the camera and says: “I have five kids. She’s talking to me, and no one ever talks to me.”
Never mind the lessons that current political candidates might learn from this moment; here it serves as a powerful and necessary reminder of what Palin represented in the early days following McCain’s decision. For many Americans, and not all of them McCain supporters or even Republicans, Sarah Palin provided, if only briefly, an unexpected vision of hope, a chance to see what would happen if a no-nonsense, non-Ivy League mother of five suddenly became a player in national politics.
Whatever came after — the appalling gaps in knowledge, the questionable record, the divisive politics, the unfortunate reality television show — Palin did indeed speak directly to people who felt politically disenfranchised. And, like long-overlooked guests suddenly embraced by a warm and beautiful hostess, they loved her for it.
Those who come to “Game Change” Saturday looking for blame or explanation will be disappointed. As they should be. A political character study done a mere four years after the major event in the character’s life cannot, and should not, attempt to be definitive.
In adapting a portion of Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s book, writer Danny Strong and director Jay Roach (“Recount”) are instead content to raise questions, the most important being: How did Sarah Palin go from governor of Alaska to vice presidential candidate and what went wrong?
Well, just about everything. Much is made in “Game Change” of the speed with which Palin was chosen and vetted (which is to say, not properly vetted). As McCain watches Barack Obama’s popularity soar despite a relatively scanty record, his aides, especially strategist Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson), advise him to make a bold move in his choice of running mate. Former Democrat Joe Lieberman is considered but in the end, they pick Palin, for obvious reasons. She’s a woman, she’s conservative, she’s attractive and she’s from Alaska.
Palin says yes without missing a beat and so we watch as she is hustled out of her blue jeans and into what would become her controversially expensive wardrobe; as she’s separated from her family, including her 4-month-old baby, and sent to political boot camp. Where it is discovered that she has limited understanding of many things, especially foreign policy, and more than a few “issues” — an unmarried pregnant daughter, a local hiring scandal and an overwhelming concern about what the folks back home think of her.
The campaign pushes her to become something she’s not; she pushes back, sometimes shutting down, sometimes throwing tantrums. Soon Schmidt and his team, many of whom participated in the book, are wondering what sort of person they are trying to seat a heartbeat away from the presidency, while Palin doesn’t understand why they won’t just let her do what she does, which is talk to real folks.
It is impossible, and superfluous, to attempt a letter-perfect chronicle of almost any historical event, especially a political campaign, and no doubt Palin and others depicted here will argue that the script takes liberty with the facts, if only in the selection of which events or conversations are presented and which are not.
But the overall atmosphere of the film is surprisingly kind to all, much more fatalistic than hypercritical and certainly not derisive. Palin’s rise and fall is depicted as series of bad decisions made in relatively good faith that lead up to a hideous car crash.
Although it would be easy, and perhaps accurate, to portray the choice of Palin as utterly cynical — give the voters a choice between two firsts and hope the white woman wins — but that is not how “Game Change” plays it. McCain comes off close to saintly, with Harris lending him a grave bafflement over Obama’s success; trusting his advisors despite his own misgivings, he approves the choice of Palin but remains distant from her, stepping in as things spiral out of control in an almost fatherly way and refusing to place any blame on her, either for her mistakes or for his loss.
Likewise Harrelson portrays Schmidt as a man who truly believes that all McCain needs to push him to victory is a little sizzle; that the sizzle could wind up leading the nation seems to concern him not at all until Palin becomes a lightning rod.
The film, obviously, belongs to Moore, who works hard to make Palin not so much fatally ambitious as one of those naturally confident people who believe that confidence and faith are the most important ingredients of success; ability or even competence can be learned on the job.
Even when Palin turns petty or paranoid, the overarching image is of a sleek and shiny big fish from a very small pond suddenly transported to the wide and densely populated ocean, unable to reconcile her self-image with what the campaign, and eventually the nation, is seeing.
In fact, watching “Game Change,” it’s hard not to wonder what would have happened if the McCain campaign had been earlier and better aware of Palin’s true skill set. If they were given more time to make her comfortable in the national arena, to shore up her weak points and broaden her script, she might have ridden that first wave of excitement to become the first female vice president.
Which, depending on your political leanings, makes “Game Change” either a very sad film, or a very, very scary one.
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
When: 9 p.m. Saturday