by Tony Dayoub
Premiering this Saturday, Game Change is an HBO adaptation of the bestselling book by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin covering the 2008 U.S. election race. Rather than try to tackle the entire tome, which looked at the presidential race from nearly every angle on both sides of the aisle, the film wisely narrows its focus to one of politics' most interesting chapters (the book's last 113 pages, essentially): the rise of Sarah Palin from Alaskan governor to—as CNN commentator Jack Cafferty put it—Republican leader "one 72-year-old's heartbeat away from being President of the United States." Writer Danny Strong and director Jay Roach take much the same approach they did with HBO's Recount, the story behind the even more controversial election of 2000. Mixing found footage gathered from cable news with CGI-enhanced images blending real-life figures like Joe Biden and actors like Julianne Moore and Ed Harris, the filmmakers dramatize the events that unfolded behind-the-scenes of John McCain's campaign.
Woody Harrelson plays Steve Schmidt, McCain's campaign manager as someone who shares a bit of his candidate's "maverick" temperament. Schmidt is savvy enough to know that McCain's top pick for vice-president—Jewish Democrat Joe Lieberman—would be a no-go in this extremely partisan era where the GOP is driven by their evangelical base. So instead, he opts to feed the monster, selecting an anti-climate change, pro-life, Creationist governor who isn't even halfway through her first term in office. His one concession to modernization of the Republican brand, and what he hopes will make the selection a press darling, is that she is a woman. But just as it does for McCain (Harris), Schmidt's tendency to trust his gut has a tragic dimension to it. It often blinds Schmidt to all of the facets of a situation, especially during the heightened, carnival-like atmosphere of the 2008 presidential election. In Schmidt's first job interview with Palin (Moore), where he and speech-writer Mark Salter (Jamey Sheridan) hope to determine her worthiness for the position, they fail to probe deeply enough into the charismatic, photogenic candidate, overlooking her ignorance of foreign policy.
Game Change approaches this aspect of the the Palin story with quite a bit of sympathy for the governor. Rather than pile on her for inexperience or lack of intellectual curiosity, Strong and Roach are careful to posit that the haste in which she was picked, vetted and placed on the national stage was doubtless a major contributing factor in embarrassing Palin and the McCain campaign in front of voters. The spike in the polls that Schmidt initially benefits from creates a kind of tunnel vision in everyone but those closest to the governor in the campaign process. This includes senior advisor Nicolle Wallace (Sarah Paulson), who is the first to see Palin begin to crack under the pressure. Roach uses mise-en-scène—a quality rare enough to find in a theatrical movie much less a tele-film—to get into Palin's head as she begins to succumb to an emotional breakdown. Palin rolls up in a fetal position in her womb-like hotel room as she struggles to memorize a voluminous stack of notes on index cards. During one session with Schmidt's large stable of foreign policy advisers, the camera centers the back of her head in the foreground of the frame as the tinier faces of her tutors orbit it in the background; her dark, beehive hairdo resembles a gaping maw or abyss into which facts and figures might fall into and disappear. When she finally explodes, she lashes out at Wallace for what she perceives as the advisor's failure to adequately prepare her for the infamous Katie Couric interview. Game Change is careful to show this isn't Wallace's fault at all. But it is not hard to feel for Palin as she screams into a cell phone while pacing in a stairwell. The stairs begin to snake around the frame, encircling Palin, with the camera getting closer and closer to her in each successive cut, shooting through the bar-like handrails until Palin looks like she's trapped in a cage of her own making.
Harris's depiction of McCain as the benevolent, and often clueless, patriarch of this dysfunctional family sometimes borders on the comic. Every other word from his mouth is a cheery "fuck." But it becomes apparent not only that Schmidt is shielding his candidate from the potential fallout connected to mishandling the whole Palin debacle. McCain is also keeping his distance because he intuits this will be the only way to keep Palin from completely "going rogue" and turning her back on the presidential nominee.
As an exposé of the modern political process, Game Change is an unqualified success. But as a literary adaptation it also works surprisingly well. By zeroing in on this one aspect of the 2008 election (as opposed to Recount's multi-layered tapestry), Game Change transforms into something more personal. Game Change becomes a cautionary tale about a once respected Senator who many agree sacrificed his political integrity for the expedient surge in the polls a fresh face might bring to his flagging campaign.