First look at HBO's 'Game Change' - A film so political in so many good ways

Woody Harrelson as Steve Schmidt

I just walked out of a dark room after spending two hours with the screener for "Game Change," the HBO film about the 2008 Republican presidential campaign of John McCain and Sarah Palin.

Based on a best-selling, non-fiction book about the historic race, it was filmed last summer in and around Baltimore.

Since this is sure to be only the first of many pieces I will write about this film between now and its March 10 premiere date on HBO, I am not going to wait for the churn of images, sounds, memories and thoughts to settle overnight. Instead, I'm going to hip shoot a few reactions while the brew is still boiling.

First, like many, my attention has been focused on Julianne Moore, the superb actress who portrays Palin. Moore gives an exquisitely nuanced and finely calibrated performance as the former governor of Alaska. She will get an Emmy for this, and it will be totally deserved. It is impossible not to get drawn into her depiction of Palin -- and to wonder where calculating stops and crazy begins.

But the actor who owns the screen whenever he is on it -- and he's on it even more than Moore's Palin -- is Woody Harrelson as McCain senior adviser Steve Schmidt.

Wow, and wow again. What a force Harrelson brings to the role.

The real Schmidt had the thankless task of trying to manage an emotionally fragile and, at times, possibly imbalanced Palin. But he should get on his knees every night for the rest of his life and thank God that Harrelson was picked to play him -- and turned in the kind of performance that makes Schmidt seem larger than life.

In fact, for all the film's talk of McCain as an "American hero," Harrelson's energy and force of personality makes Schmidt seem twice as big as the Arizona senator.

And he's definitely got some of the best lines from screenwriter Danny Strong.

Here's an early exchange with John McCain (Ed Harris), who, after throwing around the f-word  more than some might expect, says he is still leaning toward Joe Lieberman as his vice presidential candidate. Schmidt is arguing for a "game changer" of a running mate, like Palin, since they are behind Barack Obama in the polls.

"Sir," he says to McCain, "we live in an age of YouTube and the 24-hour news cycle. How else do you think a man who has no major life accomplishments is beating an American hero by double digits? He's simply sailing on his charisma and star power. We need to create a dynamic moment in this campaign or we're dead."

Later in the film, Schmidt offers this analysis of the McCain-Palin run for the White House: "This wasn't a campaign. It was a bad reality show."

Of course, this being a docudrama with its sense of verisimilitude, virtually every frame and sentence is likely to have political implications to one group of viewers or another. That's what I mean in the headline by "so political in so many ways."

For example, I don't think  some Palin followers are going to like this depiction of her. More than one adviser raises the possibility of her being mentally ill. And some of the actions and words attributed to her in the film lend credence to that characterization.

I can't wait to hear the self-serving howls on Fox News when they see how Roger Ailes' million-dollar analyst mistake is depicted in the film.

By the way, Fox hosts Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly do get a little face time, but nothing like CNN's Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper. In fact, the film opens and closes with Cooper, in his role as a part-time correspondent at CBS for"60 Minutes," interviewing Schmidt.

Let me leave you with one small snippet of dialogue that I am expecting to hear Wednesday on Rush Limbaugh's  radio show.

Standing onstage on election night after the GOP defeat, McCain says privately to Palin: "You are one of the leaders of the party now. Don't let yourself get co-opted by Limbaugh and the other extremists. They'll destroy the party if you let them."

Based on what's happening today with Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, the two former employees of Fox News, who are trying to savage the more moderate frontrunner, Mitt Romney, those words might ring prophetic to some.

But to others on the far right, they will probably be fighting words.

Love it or hate it, if "Game Change" generates the kind of debate I think it will in this presidential season, it will be one of the most culturally important films of the year -- made-for-TV or for the big screen.



Recommended on Baltimore Sun