Game Change Is Not A Movie, It’s A Cautionary Tale

“It’s not that she doesn’t know the right answer, it’s that she clearly doesn’t understand the question.”–Fareed Zakaria on Sarah Palin during the 2008 Presidential Campaign.

There is much to admire about the HBO film, Game Change, made from the book by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. There is the Palin-channeling performance of Julianne Moore as well as the terrific work by Woody Harrelson as Steve Schmidt, McCain’s Senior Campaign Adviser, Sarah Paulson as fellow McCain adviser, Nicolle Wallace and Ed Harris as McCain himself. The attention to detail and the blending of actual footage with the actors playing the real life characters is impressive and seamless. The no-fat direction and sharp screenplay certainly serve the source material well too.

However, the predominant emotion I felt while watching the movie was not an appreciation for the very fine work on display by all those involved in this first rate production. No. Instead, I was nearly overcome by an almost complete sense of terror over how close we came to having an incredibly incompetent neophyte politician within one 72 year old man’s bad health outcome of becoming President of the United States. Game Change does not so much resemble a political drama as it is does an 80′s horror flick. You know, the ones where the killer is on the loose and the only person to survive is the blonde girl who doesn’t have sex? Well after watching Game Change, I–for the first time in my life–feel like that blonde girl.

Sure, we all remember the many verbal gaffes by the 1/2 term Governor of Alaska during the debate, the disastrous Charlie Gibson/Katie Couric interviews, and the extraordinary parody work by Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live, but to see the McCain team trying to coach Mrs. Palin up on World War II while pointing at Germany on a map of the world (and actually saying, “This is Germany“) is something else altogether. As Steve Schmidt put it, “She doesn’t know anything.”

Even worse than that, is the point in the film where the McCain team is cheering the Vice Presidential Debate performance of Mrs. Palin like their team just won the Super Bowl, when in truth, they were just pleased that she didn’t completely crater. In some ways, it may be the most cynical depiction of a political event I have ever seen. They knew she was completely unqualified, but they were only interested in victory. Now, of course, that was their job, but it sure as hell doesn’t match up to the McCain 2008 motto, “Country First.” Not by a damn sight.

In some ways, watching Ed Harris as McCain might even be more disturbing. All of your worst fears about McCain are confirmed here. Yes, he was a true war hero and an essentially decent man, but he is also impulsive, immature, and not a particularly good leader. Here is a man who let himself get talked out of his first choice for VP, Joe Lieberman, and instead, went along with a flyer from Alaska whom his campaign only had five days to vett before they made their running mate announcement. Hell, later in the film, when Wallace asks Schmidt if McCain is aware of Palin’s deficiencies, Schmidt replies, “He doesn’t want to know.” He doesn’t want to know? Seriously? He asked this woman to run with him for the highest office in the land and he’s not interested in the fact that, as of 2008, she was still unaware of who was responsible for the 9/11 attacks? Excuse me, but I need to get something cool for my forehead.

Now, one might be able to view all of this through the lense of comedy, except for one fact…for a few treacherous weeks, it actually worked. The rollout was handled exceptionally well. Palin’s introduction to the country at large via her convention speech was a true sensation. I still remember watching it myself and thinking that her sneering, mean-spirited, and condescending tone was the last thing the country needed. I also remember thinking of how well it was delivered and the way it galvanized the republican base and saying out loud, “Shit, we are in trouble.” And the fact is, we were.

Before Palin joined the ticket, McCain was having trouble finding enough people to fill a Moose Lodge at his campaign events. They were well short on money, enthusiasm, and down in the polls. All of that changed when Palin came aboard. The rallies swelled, the cash started to roll in, and at one point–the team of so-called “Mavericks”–was up by as many as 5 points in several major polls.

The hard truth is, were it not for two incredibly horrible interviews and a late night comedian, we could be living through the first term of a McCain-Palin administration. Which means we would probably have bombed every country in the Middle East not named Israel by now while also praying that the guy making those decisions retains his health because the back-up plan was an Alaskan basket case incapable of telling you the difference between Iraq and Afghanistan.

Hell, you can almost forgive Palin to a point. She was plucked from obscurity and forced into a situation that very few people on Earth would have been able to manage. But to think that John McCain, Steve Schmidt, and others on their team wanted to win so badly that they would choose her is far worse than just a bad decision that–thankfully–didn’t lead to worse, it had the potential to be catastrophic.

There is a scene late in the film where a tearful Wallace confesses privately to Schmidt that she could not bring herself to vote for the ticket she had worked so hard for. It is the closest thing to a heroic moment in the film. You can see the anguish on the faces of both advisers who clearly know they made a choice that was truly indefensible and they were now going to have to live with it for the rest of their lives. All I can say to that is, thank God we don’t.

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Author: David Phillips

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