Palin TV-movie 'Game Change' pushes the limits of docudrama

Julianne Moore (center) stars as former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin in HBO's TV-movie "Game Change."
Julianne Moore (center) stars as former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin in HBO's TV-movie "Game Change." (Phil Caruso, HBO Photo)

Sarah Palin says it's a lie.

Her press spokeswoman calls it "sick."


Other supporters of the former Alaska governor refer to it as a "hit job" — concocted by Hollywood leftists and the liberal media.

Filmed in and around Baltimore last year, "


"s "Game Change," won't premiere until next Saturday. But even mostly sight unseen, the two-hour made-for-TV movie about John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign has generated a torrent of debate.

Taking on a polarizing figure like Sarah Palin already makes "Game Change" one of the most evocative productions of the year.

But what sets "Game Change" apart is how it has radically shortened the distance between real-life events and their Hollywood depiction. As the producers deftly blend actual news footage and dramatic recreations, "Game Change" vaporizes the lines of fact and fiction as you watch.

This immersion is cemented by the uncanny performances of Julianne Moore as Palin, Ed Harris as McCain and Woody Harrelson as senior McCain adviser Steve Schmidt.

It's important to note that most of "Game Change's" critics have not seen the film. And they are wrong in their assumption that the film is about just Palin.

The film starts in the days before McCain picked Palin as his running mate and ends with his concession speech on Election Night. While Palin is certainly front and center, "Game Change" is really about how someone so unprepared could be selected as a vice-presidential candidate.

The person at the heart of that story is Schmidt. Most people probably have never heard his name. But after they see Harrelson's Emmy-caliber performance, they will feel like they not only know him, but also have shared his agony during the final months of election 2008.

"When I set out to make this film I was interested in both trying to imagine and then getting access to what it was like to be in those rooms with the campaign managers and strategists," says Jay Roach, director and executive producer.

"I had followed John McCain for years and saw him as a very interesting politician and senator who had served his country to the highest degree," Roach says. "And then, he makes this amazing choice of Sarah Palin, and it's one of the most electrifying and astonishing in my memory of politics."

But it also became a huge liability when Palin struggled to answer basic questions in interviews with network news anchors Katie Couric and Charlie Gibson.

Not only did millions watch the interviews live, but in the new media world of You Tube, they were played and replayed. And then, they were parodied on NBC's "Saturday Night Live" for several weeks running with Tina Fey drawing rave reviews and record SNL audiences for her impersonation of Palin.

"A lot of this story was happening in front of the camera and was being discussed on news channels," says Roach, "But you also knew there was a lot we weren't learning about those people."


Roach, who won an Emmy for his directing of "Recount," HBO's docudrama on the 2000 presidential election, says, "I just wanted to understand what it was like and what it might say about our political process ... That just seemed to me like the juiciest story in the world."

And there are plenty of juicy stories in "Game Change" like when the campaign finds out that Palin doesn't know the difference between North and South Korea. It shows Palin curled up in a fetal position in a hotel room and later mumbling, "I miss my baby." And one adviser even suggests "she might be mentally unstable" as Palin shuts down in meetings and refuses to answer questions.

But as juicy as such incidents might be, they are part only of the larger look at how the "political process" broke down, and in that story, Schmidt, not Palin, is the star.

"I entered this story and I'm kind of asking the audience to enter this story through the anxious mind of Steve Schmidt," Roach says, explaining why he opens and closes the film on the"60 Minutes"interview with Schmidt in which the McCain adviser talks about Palin's erratic behavior and acknowledges his own guilt in helping select her as running mate.

"The film begins and ends with that '60 Minutes' interview for a very important reason," Roach says. "Look, Schmidt didn't use any of these words, but what I heard him saying on national TV was, 'My soul hurts. I feel like a situation I contributed to and decisions I made are having negative consequences on our country. And I'm regretting it.'"

Roach's depiction of the "60 Minutes" interview that Anderson Cooper did with Schmidt is representative of the heightened way fact and fiction are mixed in this docudrama.

The viewer hears the real voice of Cooper from the actual "60 Minutes" interview interrogating Schmidt, but sees a body double of the anchorman from behind intercut with shots of Cooper's face as a question is asked. As the question ends, the camera switches to a facial close up of Harrelson answering as Schmidt.

Videotape of real TV newswomen, newsmen and cable TV hosts like Cooper, John King, Wolf Blitzer, Keith Olbermann, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly and Rachel Maddow is intercut throughout the movie lending even more verisimilitude — or confusion about what's real and what's fictional.

And it is made all the more intense by the fact that the distance between actual events and the film version is only 3 and 1/2 years. I cannot think another major docudrama that premiered that soon after the real event. "Recount," HBO's account of the "hanging chad" madness of the Florida vote in the 200 presidential election, didn't premiere until 2008.

More typical in terms of time for a docudrama with major stars is the Meryl Streep's"The Iron Lady," which opened in theaters with more than twenty years after British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher left office.

In the end, no scene involves more blurring than one that features Moore as Palin sitting in a darkened plane watching Tina Fey portraying Palin in a "Saturday Night Live" sketch. The flight takes place shortly after Palin's disastrous interviews with Gibson and Palin, and in the SNL sketch, Fey is re-creating Palin's debacles on the evening news.

It's a great scene, but where did it come from since neither Roach nor screenwriter Danny Strong talked to Palin?

"That moment was described to Danny Strong by multiple aides who were on the plane and watched at the same time Governor Palin did," Roach wrote in an email. "We were told the campaign had chartered a Jet Blue plane which had 'Saturday Night Live' playing while traveling between campaign stops... A version of Governor Palin watching SNL is also described in much detail in the book 'Sarah From Alaska.'"

That, says Roach, is indicative of the standards of journalism and history they used to create and verify material beyond that found in the "Game Change" book that HBO bought rights to.

Beyond the question of historical truth, the tableau offers a profound insight with its multiple screens and versions of Palin into the crazy ways media, celebrity, identity and politics collide, merge and mate in these post-post-modern times.


Yes, the film clearly says this woman is not worthy of national office.


But as Moore's Palin watches the wicked Fey parody, you can see the pain and embarrassment of the public humiliation in her face. Without the use of any words, Moore puts you in Palin's shoes for a second.

And no matter how much you might despise this failed game changer, I guarantee you will feel empathy, if not compassion, for her.

That is what art — not a hatchet job — does.



"Game Change" premieres at 9 p.m. Saturday March 10 on HBO

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