Film Review: Game Change (2012)

One of the most engaging appearances in Game Change, the 2012 HBO film about Sarah Palin and the 2008 election, is not Julianne Moore take on the infamous former governor of Alaska. It is actually Tina Fey, who spectacularly impersonated Palin in a number of SNL skits during the ’08 cycle, and who has continued to do so ever since. Director Jay Roach stages several scenes featuring Moore’s Palin watching Fey’s Palin on television. These moments are not coincidental. They go to the heart of Game Change’s suggestion that politics have become synonymous with entertainment, fueled by the rabid populism percolating in our culture. The different layers of entertainers embodying politicians compound upon each other, asking the thematically-complex question about just where the line between such public figures exist, or if it has disappeared entirely.

But what of the film’s quality itself? Game Change is far from a perfect movie, wavering in terms of style and structure. It originally appears as a thoughtful examination of a time and place, but eventually descends into a screwy yarn with uncorroborated character shifts. Even with this inconsistency, Game Change features laudable acting, adept direction and a prescient sense of where the country was heading. Although released in 2012, Game Change foresaw the dynamics of our current election cycle. This imbues the ugliness seen periodically in Roach’s film with an extra sense of weight, as we all know the madness it prefigures.

Game Change begins with a moment of great transition. It is 2007 and Democratic senator Barack Obama is a political superhero on the rise. Republican senator John McCain (Ed Harris) is his opponent in the general election. A crusty, old political battleaxe, McCain is struggling to keep pace with the help of Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson), a calculating political kingmaker. Their efforts prove fruitless however against the Obama magnetism, who is harnessing the power of Web 2.0, social media and grassroots fundraising like never before.

To close the gap, Schmidt and McCain decide to create a bold, seismic moment, one to equal the historic power of Obama’s White House run. This comes through tapping Julianne Moore’s Sarah Palin to be McCain’s running mate. What starts as a simple method for inspiring the Republican base, not to mention making inroads with demographics like women, soon becomes a Faustian bargain. The inexperienced, hard-right governor slowly morphs into a political liability, one that threatens not only the careers of people like McCain and Schmidt but the very foundation of American democracy itself.

Under Roach and writer Danny Strong, Game Change illustrates a turning point in the history of our electoral process with mixed results. Roach and other artists (such as DP Jim Denault) create potent subtextual moments, such as tight, claustrophobic shots of McCain as he is being berated by his aids to pick someone different from his original choice for Vice President (Senator Joe Liberman). He also blocks certain scenes in interesting, subtle ways, such as a brief foreshadowing shot where Harrelson’s Schmidt moves aside an item to see Palin better.

Strong’s script on the other hand feels forced, often with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer coming down on your foot. For example, despite Game Change featuring many shots that convey the ubiquity of the 24 hour news cycle and the pervasiveness of digital content like YouTube, Strong’s script articulates the nature of the changing media landscape ad nauseam, with some characters even verbalizing it multiple times. More effective is the film’s sense of pacing. The ups and downs of what was a protracted campaign don’t feel tedious, although the film’s soundtrack – a mixture of string-heavy political thriller music and twangy country tunes – certainly does.

The three actors who give life to the main characters also help personify the idea of game change. Portrayed as a passive, impotent figure by Ed Harris, McCain is characterized as a man out of time, a gentlemanly old fart whose unwillingness to “go negative” and zeal to put “country first” gives off a profound mothball odor. He is taken on a journey throughout the film, gradually coming to the realization that he essentially doesn’t belong in this new landscape of hyper partisanship and loathsome ideologues.

A powerhouse of an actor, the confidence and charisma that typifies Harris’s best work is strangely absent for much of Game Change. For a majority of the film, his performance feels stiff and awkward, with McCain acting like a lost, batty old goofball. Later on in the story his work does gain some traction, specifically when he must evoke mournful discontent regarding the election cycle’s dive into nihilistic oblivion. Harris is able to imbue McCain with some complex contradictions in these moments, such as when the character tells Harrelson’s Schmidt that he can “never quit” even after identifying that he represents the past for American politics.

Harrelson’s bullish Steve Schmidt has a more consistently powerful arc. Shown initially as being willing to win at any cost, Game Change lays the blame for Palin’s ascendancy at his feet. Once the general election begins, the consequences of this cavalier attitude become brutally obvious. Not only does Palin have obvious political weaknesses, such as “scandals” like Troopergate and Bristolgate, but it is revealed that she knows next to nothing about policy – both foreign or domestic. The film makes it clear that these qualities were brushed over in Palin’s vetting process, which Schmidt ironically and fatally expedites in order to keep pace with Obama’s command over the nation’s insatiable news cycles. Throughout Game Change, Harrelson (working from Strong’s script) is able to create a powerful arc for Schmidt, suggesting a man who is slowly realizing that actions have consequences and that some games should not be changed.

Personifying the proverbial thorn in both of these men’s sides is Julianne Moore’s Palin, who, like her real life counterpart, is a bundle of quirks. Despite the comically flamboyant nature of role though, Moore is amazingly able to deliver a complex and even (at times) deeply sympathetic performance. The filmmakers recreate many of Palin’s iconic moments from the ’08 race, such as her “Difference Between a Pitbull and a Hockey Mom” quip from the Republican National Convention and, of course, that mortifying Katie Couric interview.  The character’s quieter, invented moments in Game Change are the best ones though, such as a deeply affecting scene where Palin speaks to her son in Iraq.     

Even with such a formidable actress at the helm, the Palin character in Game Change doesn’t work. The filmmakers initially present the character as a simple, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed hayseed, who genuinely wants to do good on the national stage and is just in way over her head. It’s only during the film’s final third that she abruptly switches to the Palin we all know (and love?), with nothing to smooth the total car wreck of her character arc.

What this implies is that the film perceives politics as an inherently corrosive process, which either corrupts the nascent and inept (Palin), or derails the seasoned and semi-competent (McCain and Schmidt). More disturbing is the film’s cynical condemnation of the American electorate, which Palin hoodwinks after realizing she doesn’t need acumen or knowledge, just incendiary rhetoric.

That aspect of Palin’s arc in Game Change – where she finally figures out how to rise on the national stage – is the one that carries real weight, even if her motivations for choosing that route remain nebulous. It is here where the film conveys an almost elemental type of power, particularly when watching it in 2016. Game Change’s thesis is that, due to changes in media and communication, a dangerous new type of politician has emerged in American life, one that seeks to incite the populace, demonize political opponents and dismiss compromise as an act of weakness.

“There is a dark side to American populism,” McCain says in Game Change’s final moments, “and some people win elections by tapping into it.” Such words hit like a thunder clap when viewing the film during the age of Trump. It suggests volumes about human beings capacity for fear, and, more disturbingly, the desire of some to surrender reason and logic to the spellbinding nature of the demagogue. Whatever Game Change’s flaws, it semi-successfully conveys these large, meaty ideas through its script, direction and acting – a laudable feat indeed.

The film audaciously articulates something truthful about where we were and where we were going, but it provides no catharsis about what is still to come. There is only a cold, ominous sense of foreboding, relating to the type of toxic people who enter and then figure out how to stay involved in politics. “We don’t get to go back in time, Anderson, and have do-overs in life,” says Harrelson’s Schmidt when asked by Anderson Cooper (a 2010 interview bookends the film’s 2008 story) if he has regrets about putting Palin on the ticket. This is obviously true. Still, with the conflation of politics and entertainment, where moneyed brands like Clinton, Palin, Trump, and McCain still dominate the American psyche and discourse, perhaps the same can’t be said for politics. 

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