Thursday, March 8, 2012

Is 'Game Change' oversimplified? You betcha! Entertaining? Darn right!

Ed Harris and Julianne Moore play John McCain and Sarah Palin in 'Game Change'
What you think of HBO's political docudrama "Game Change," airing Saturday at 9 p.m., will probably depend largely on your political ideology. If you veer to the right, you'll probably find it to be an unfair, broad depiction of the Republican side of the 2008 presidential race and a hatchet job on controversial vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin (here played by Julianne Moore). If you lean left, you'll likely find it searing and laudable in its claim that Palin was, as one character says, "the greatest actress in American politics," and not much else.
And if you're just someone who wants a diverting entertainment and couldn't care less about the movie's ideology? Well, you'll probably be largely satisfied. This is a witty, quick-moving tale from the director and screen writer of that other HBO political drama, "Recount." Unlike that movie, which mainly chronicled players behind the scenes of the 2000 political election, this focuses on personalities most viewers are familiar with.
"Game Change" charts the McCain campaign more or less starting with his team's choice of Palin as a running mate. The film's main arc is, indeed, about Palin's journey from Alaska governor to political star to polarizing figure. And, while Moore will likely get attention and praise for her technically accomplished performance, I was much more interested in
the character who will be least recognizably to most viewers, McCain strategist Steve Schmidt, played with typical excellence by Woody Harrelson. Schmidt is the movie's engine -- he's the one who goes after Palin without properly vetting her, then recoils when he realizes that she's not the ticket to victory he imagined. Whether or not you agree with what he did, the movie takes pains to make us understand why he and his team made the choices he did. The character isn't always sympathetic, but he's always interesting and recognizable. Though Moore is getting the press, it's Harrelson who really deserves it. He's quiet when he needs to be, fierce when required and always riveting.
Thus, the movie's better when it's focusing on him doing damage control than when the spotlight is on Palin.Yes, Moore is good at mimicking Palin's famous gestures and vocal intonations, but there's not tremendous depth to the performance. Part of that is the screenplay's fault. Though there is some attempt to paint Palin as complicated (the movie, for example, shows that she's a loving wife and mother), we don't get much from her point of view.  This is a particular problem in the movie's last act, in which she famously "goes rogue" near the end of the campaign. This happens so abruptly that it's hard to get a feel for why this happens. One minute, she's an out-of-her-depth novice who bungles her Katie Couric interview and constantly calls Joe Biden "O'Biden," and the next, she's a cagey political shark. It feels rushed and unconvincing.
We don't get much insight into McCain (Ed Harris) either, though he's definitely portrayed in a more sympathetic light than Palin.
Overall, the movie is compelling and interesting, even if you don't agree with its point of view. I just wish it dug a little deeper and gave us more of a feel for this interesting moment in American history.

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