Game Change is a fantastic feature length film from HBO that revisits the McCain campaign from 2008 and specifically at the time that they decided to introduce Sarah Palin as the vice president.
The film is based on the book of the same name which was written by political journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. Game Change goes to great lengths to show how cynical the decision was to select Palin, how poorly vetted and prepped she was and the amazing feat that McCain’s team achieved in readying her for the national stage in a matter of days. By the end of this film, I was surprised at how much sympathy I had for Palin and how ultimately, McCain’s strategist Steve Schmidt must surely bear the brunt of the responsibility for what happened to McCain’s campaign.
The film begins with Schmidt watching Obama’s Berlin address and realizing that with the momentum this young African American senator was building, he needed a ‘game changer’ of his own. A boutique vice presidential candidate to show that the Republicans were modern and not the party of old. It couldn’t be the same old white conservative male. A light bulb goes off in his head and he decides to look for a female veep. Incredibly, we then see him surfing Youtube to try and find one that is sufficiently attractive. He passes on far more experienced candidates than Palin as they may be too fat, too old, too ugly. He discovers Sarah Palin, Governor of Alaska, who looks attractive, is conservative and is running at a high approval rating in her state of Alaska. Bingo!
It’s plain to see that Schmidt, and realistically McCain, are both veteran players in the game of politics and have a clear understanding of what plays well to their base. Pro NRA, anti abortion, believe in small government, keep prayer in school, yada yada. It’s bread and butter stuff that they might not personally feel strongly about but they understand its what their party stands for.
When Schmidt and his colleague interview Palin for the first time, its immediately apparent that she is a wide eyed believer. She’s drinking the Kool Aid by the jug. She doesn’t support these policies because they’re the party line, she supports them because she believes in them wholeheartedly. And although they seem incredulous to meet one of their target voters in the flesh, Schmidt is running out of time and takes the gamble on her as the vice presidential candidate.
In opting to go with Palin, I think that was the tipping point for the Republican party. In the past, with Karl Rove and Dick Cheney providing savvy advice, the Bush Administration was always proudly conservative in their agenda but careful to ensure they didn’t alienate the majority of American voters. After all, what’s the point of having these great policies and plans if you can’t win elections to see them through?
Once Palin became the conservative power player and she embraced the Tea Party movement, the party became filled with the people that they used to be playing to, not the actual puppet masters that pull the strings and know when to hold back. That meant that they dug in their heels and doubled down on their fanatical beliefs, no matter how abhorrent they may be to the broader public. Which is how we’ve ended up with a 2012 Republican platform that basically states that the party is strongly opposed to national emergency services and health care but they’re fine with rape as its part of God’s plan. In fact, its mandatory to have the baby if you’re raped but we don’t want you having a baby via IVF (not God’s plan apparently). Vote for us! GOP 2012.
The performance from Julianne Moore in this film is exceptional. A few years prior, I never quite felt engaged with Oliver Stone’s film W as the actors never got past looking like they were performing an awkward theatre production with dodgy look-a-likes. With Game Change, not only does Moore nail Palin’s look, she has the cadence of her speech down pat and replicates her mannerisms so effectively that I immediately become immersed in her acting. Ed Harris also turns in a convincing performance as John McCain.
Game Change leaves us feeling sympathy for both McCain and Palin. Palin is clearly in over her head and the way that she tenses up in moments of stress is saddening. It is only once the McCain campaign team teach her to speak entirely in talking points and catch phrases does she find her confidence and swagger. As for McCain, just like we saw in the real election in 2008, its obvious his heart is not in it. Here is a man who has genuine aspirations to serve his country but he doesn’t have the will to really go along with the bullshit that comes with presidential politics. At town hall rallies, the people are there to support him but he can hear the racist and reactionary calls from the extremists and it clearly saddens him.
This is an excellent film that gives an interesting insight into the making of Sarah Palin, one of the most intriguing and influential politicians of the last five years. If there are political writers out in the field today, I hope someone pens a similar book or screenplay about Mitt Romney. What does he stand for? What does he really believe? What is he like? I have absolutely no idea but I’m curious to find out.