HBO’s Game Change Is Amusing, But Not Always Accurate

Julianne Moore and Ed Harris shine in the docudrama, but John McCain and Sarah Palin claim the flick isn't true to reality.

If I were Sarah Palin or John McCain, I’d hate HBO’s Game Change, too. It makes the 2008 Republican duo look like Dumb and Dumber.

That does not mean, however, that the wildly-entertaining docudrama, which debuted over the weekend, is not fundamentally accurate in its portrayal of the chaos surrounding Senator McCain’s decision to name then-unknown Alaska Gov. Palin as his presidential running mate.

Case in point: While Palin and McCain  decry Game Change’s’ alleged inaccuracies (sight unseen, of course), their campaign’s senior strategist went on MSNBC’s Morning Joe yesterday with his endorsement. Labeling the film as “very accurate,” Steve Schmidt acknowledged his role in putting the “unprepared” Palin on the ticket. The notion of her possibly becoming president “is something that frightens me,” he added.

As sheer amusement, Game Change wins in a landslide. Julianne Moore and Ed Harris give extraordinary performances as Palin and McCain, and Woody Harrelson plays it to the hilt as Schmidt, also the story’s narrator.

Moore, a four-time Oscar nominee, perfectly mimics Palin’s speech in its distinctive rhythm, pitch, and scrappin’ of consonants. She doesn’t go too far, though, allowing her to avoid the level of parody by Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live. (In a nice touch, Moore is shown watching the SNL clips.)

Harris is equally impressive in his McCain incarnation. His eyes alone speak volumes, particularly in the scene where Harrelson’s Schmidt convinces McCain that Palin is the solution to his languishing campaign. The maverick yin to his maverick yang.

Here’s where Dumb and Dumber come in. At that point, McCain has no idea that his staff’s speed vetting of the vice-presidential candidate, completed over five days instead of over several months, failed to discover that she was as dim-witted as an Alaskan crab about global politics and world history, not to mention basic geography. As Palin is prepped for her first media interviews, she’s genuinely surprised to learn that the Queen of England is head of state, not head of government. That would be the Prime Minister, whoever he is.  She also has no idea what ‘the Fed’ means, or why North and South Korea are different countries.

They were expecting Madame Curie, maybe?

Game Change, based on the best seller of the same title by political reporters Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, does not reduce Palin to a villainous cliché, either. Danny Strong’s script portrays her as a compassionate mother and instinctive campaigner whose nerves fray under crushing stress. One cannot help but feel for her. Nothing could have prepared her for the level of public scrutiny that comes with a national candidacy.

Palin’s crowd-drawing charisma compensates for her intellectual naiveté, at least in the beginning. It starts to fall apart–and so does she–after her cringe-inducing interviews with ABC’s Charlie Gibson and CBS’s Katie Couric. Director Jay Roach (Recount) seamlessly weaves footage of the real interviews with Moore’s Palin.

As her media failures multiply, McCain and his advisors, veterans of the blood sport that is national politics, continue to treat Palin like a show dog. Train her and stroke her enough, she’ll perform for the judges. Schmidt says as much in one scene: “She’s a great actress, right? Why don’t we just give her some lines?”

The same strategy should be applied to the current GOP crop of wannabe’s. Lord knows they could use better scripts, judging by their performances in the endless debates.

Now there’s a game worth changing.