Game Change

Game Change debuts Saturday at 9 p.m. Eastern on HBO.

The shotgun marriage between John McCain and Sarah Palin, hastily arranged in the face of sagging poll numbers and the upcoming Republican National Convention, was consummated under a sycamore tree on McCain’s ranch in Sedona, Arizona. Desperate to reenergize the campaign via a—oh fuck it, here comes a cliché—“game-changer,” McCain’s brain trust abandoned the shortlist of expected VP candidates and offered the half-term governor of Alaska as a gambler’s alternative: a rock-ribbed conservative who could make up in charisma what she lacked in experience, and who had apparently rankled GOP establishment types in her state for rejecting the “bridge to nowhere,” a notorious pork-barrel project. 

So what happened in that hour under the sycamore tree? What words passed between these two strangers that would bring this provincial novice to the national stage and electrify the already-historic 2008 presidential cycle? According to Game Change, a feeble new HBO adaptation of John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s bestselling non-fiction book, it went a little something like this: 

“You remind me of myself,” McCain says. “We’re both reformers not afraid to thumb our nose at our own party.” 

Lines like that are, in a nutshell, the problem with Game Change: This is supposed to be the inside story of the McCain campaign, with all its dysfunction, backbiting, and Hail Mary gimmickry, yet everyone speaks in stilted pundit-ese. Much like Oliver Stone’s failed biopic W., the film trots out a cast of skilled celebrity impersonators to regurgitate dialogue that seems lifted from press conferences or sessions with “The Best Political Team On Television.” No matter how uncanny the performances—and actors like Julianne Moore and Ed Harris get the nuances and temperaments right—the politicians and operatives in Game Change are not human beings. They are spouters of conventional wisdom. 

A fraction of the blame falls on Heilemann and Halperin, whose book, for all its addictive nuggets of gossip and internecine squabbles, sketches crude caricatures of the major players, who all can be summed up in an adjective or two. (Clinton: angry, entitled; Obama: serene, arrogant; McCain: angry, entitled; Palin: naïve, unstable.) But there’s a difference between the McCain campaign pushing his reputation as a reformer or “maverick” in talking points—which it did, with the regularity of a drumbeat—and McCain himself, in casual conversation, repeating lines from his stump speech. Where Heilemann and Halperin succeeded in collecting the leaks that trickled, then gushed, from the McCain camp, the film has none of that behind-the-scenes charge. For the most part, these private faces seem little different from their public faces.

Director Jay Roach and writer Danny Strong, who collaborated on the much stronger, Emmy-winning Recount in 2008, have wisely limited their adaptation to the last 100 or so pages of Heilemann and Halperin’s book, which cover Palin’s dramatic entry into the race and the implosion that followed. While there are compelling parallels between the book’s sections on the primary battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and McCain/Obama—Clinton and McCain both resented Obama as a line-jumping egotist and naïf, yet ran similarly undisciplined campaigns—the focus on McCain and Palin limits the sprawl and amplifies the most dramatic turn of the presidential season. And yet it still feels like a rough abridgment. 

Playing by far the most multi-dimensional character, Woody Harrelson stars as Steve Schmidt, McCain’s chief campaign strategist, a political professional who firmly believes in McCain’s integrity and vision while just as firmly arguing that those qualities alone aren’t enough to ensure victory. As Obama’s oratory lights up mega-rallies from Berlin’s Tiergarten Park to Denver’s Mile High Stadium, Schmidt searches for ways to undermine Obama’s cult of personality while finding, in a VP pick, an equally galvanizing cult of personality to counterpunch. McCain (Harris) wants his buddy Joe Lieberman, whose apostasies against the Democratic Party, especially on the war in Iraq, would help underline his political independence. But Lieberman’s liberal views on other issues, including abortion, pose the threat of revolt at the convention. Tim Pawlenty is the safe choice but a yawner, and it’s ultimately decided that the gender gap between McCain and Obama is so extreme that a female running mate may be essential. After a little Googling and YouTube-ing—Meg Whitman is also pro-choice, and the likes of Kay Bailey Hutchison, Linda Lingle, and Susan Collins are zzzzzzz—Schmidt comes across Palin (Moore) on Charlie Rose and is appropriately smitten. 

Roach and Strong do well in detailing why this “high-risk, high-reward” maneuver had to happen. Though it would cost McCain his main line of attack against Obama—that the first-term senator from Illinois was too inexperienced for the job—it would gain him the support of a right-wing base that had always been suspicious of him, and leverage some advantage in the identity politics that had given Obama such a lift. The vetting process for Palin was notoriously hasty and reckless—a few days instead of a few months—and both the film and book plausibly suggest that Palin’s canyon-sized gaps in foreign and domestic policy knowledge were not discovered because the McCain campaign deliberately wanted to keep itself in the dark. It was a faith-based initiative in more ways than one. 

As Palin, Moore strikes a note somewhere between Tina Fey’s devastating parody and the folksiness of Fargo’s Marge Gunderson—with maybe a dash of Nicole Kidman’s leggy manipulator from To Die For for good measure—but the character angles too sharply in both directions. Roach and Strong make Palin’s disastrous three-part interview with Katie Couric just the tip of the ignorant-yokel iceberg, showing prep sessions with Nicolle Wallace (Sarah Paulson), and portraying other McCain staffers as stunned to hear her crediting Saddam Hussein for 9/11, or expressing confusion over the division between North and South Korea. They also show her paralyzing despondence over bad press, a “rogue” tendency not to fall in line behind McCain and campaign strategy, and a narrow obsession with her approval numbers back home in Alaska. 

Moore and the filmmakers treat Palin with equal parts withering contempt and patronizing sympathy, as a dangerous know-nothing who’s nonetheless unpretentious, genuine in her devotion to faith and family, and perhaps no more pathologically ambitious than anyone else running for high office. Roach and Strong attempt a balance that’s more calculated than complex. They don’t want to turn Game Change into a Palin hatchet piece—hence scenes of Palin raging over the $150,000 wardrobe bought for her family, or having warm heart-to-hearts with her husband Todd, the “First Dude,” as he thumbs through a copy of a snowmobiling magazine in bed—but they can’t humanize her, either. She’s opaque when she isn’t simply monstrous, and the film does little but provide the real Palin with more grist for her endless media-persecution narrative. 

Mostly, though, Game Change is guilty of making explicit what should be submerged in the drama. Behind the scenes of every Palin speech (or her debate with Joe Biden), there’s a NASA-like control room of professional applauders affirming every barb (“She’s amazing!” “She’s incredible!” “She’s a bigger star than Obama!”), and when it isn’t doing the expository heavy lifting, the dialogue sounds like a tour through Spin Alley. Scenes of Palin breaking down like an insolent child suggest an emotional instability that wasn’t in full view to the public, but most of Game Change seems cobbled together from the political chatter of the time. That’s the problem with inept campaigns like McCain’s in the Internet age: When warring politicos air their dirty laundry, the stink gets around.