Game Change, the Jay Roach film based on the much ballyhooed book by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, is basically a love song for hacks. The film, as one might surmise, is politics in its very soul – but politics in a very DC sort of sense. This is after all, the Washington DC that saw Bill Clinton’s adultery as a far greater sin than Ronald Reagan funding the rape and murder of Catholic missionaries in El Salvador, that continued to pass of Hermain Cain as a conservative wunderkind not until he proved his lack of basic knowledge on Libya, but when it turned out he like to boink. There is a claim that DC cares more about politics than other towns – which is partially true, but it is more knee deep in the tactics on the Hill than any sort of curiosity about what they are fighting for. I know living here, I have seen motorcades passing by – but who knew the world the tinted windows covered was no more sophisticated than 8th grade? Judging by the information contained in Game Change, a film which benefits greatly from competent direction and acting that is better than the material, Halperin and Heilemann had the best seat in the house for the 2008 campaign but could only deliver with spreading nasty rumors about the girls they saw. This is not to say that the film is not well made. It absolutely lives up to HBO’s standards for production and acting and whatnot – and this has to be vastly superior to the book considering how much Moore and Harrelson bring to their characters, and how little curiosity the writers seem to show for anything that would actually be interesting or insightful.
Woody Harrelson plays Steve Schmidt – who has remade himself as MSNBC’s Republican Primary version of Hubie Brown – a campaign strategist left over from the Bush days who gets called by John McCain (Ed Harris) to try to help the campaign. In this moment, we hear Schmidt talk about how Obama lacked experience while McCain was an American hero and he wants to help the team and so-forth. And that basically is the extent of the politics in the film – and things shift into the very interior world of running a campaign. Apparently, McCain is struggling along with Obama getting the large convention bump and so on and so on – and so there has to be something to counterract it. Steve Schmidt of course has the brilliant idea – bring in the governor of Alaska. Here, the movie is skillful in displaying the calculation. The team is looking at numbers and the news cycle, and trying to win the everyday campaign. There is an absence of a larger context – perhaps since for these people there IS no larger context. Indeed, the authors of the book bring no such insight to the table. In some ways, the movie would have benefited from eliminating the McCain character entirely. Ed Harris brings little to the role here, and the filmmakers and the book’s authors have no interest in portraying him as anything other than the heroic news clippings that make Chris Matthews drool.
Of course, with this choice comes the entrance into the arena of Ms. Palin (Julianne Moore) herself. Palin I believe, is none too pleased about her portrayal here. Actually I think Roach is far more sympathetic to Palin than Halperin and Heilemann are. As a matter of fact, considering their gleeful disparaging of Elizabeth Edwards, one can surmise that there is a bit of a misogynistic streak in how they regard women working in the arena in general. The Palin story of course needs no rehashing here, and Juliane Moore – seasoned pro that she is – does not attempt to strike a perfect impersonation. Tina Fey has that covered. Instead Moore suggests the Palin personality, and in the limited things the screenplay allows her to show, you get a sense of a woman who got the call from the big leagues, and slowly started to recognize and exploit what a big deal she was. She did not ask for this, but the McCain campaign was trying to have it both ways – have her be the running mate for their base, PR flunky reasons, but limit her power to actually act like somebody important. Needless to say, Palin – like anybody in that position – resisted. Moore’s performance is heroic here, in fewer quiet moments, suggesting some depth and feeling without the screenplay offering her much help. Halperin and Heilemann want us to think that she is the cartoon character depicted in the media – but Moore resists.
Indeed, Palin becomes more difficult to handle, and by the end, we are asked to sympathize with Schmidt’s regret for his decision. However, I just got the sense he was upset that they lost – and for those who lived in that time, it’s not like Palin was causal – preventing a perfectly heroic angel from winning what was entitled to him. That, like much of DC politics is also invented claptrap. But of course, this is a Beltway insider book, so what did we expect? I was glad I saw the movie, if nothing else to sate my curiosity. However, the screenplay David Mamet wrote for the fictional Wag the Dog contains far more insight about politics, and the PR folks who shine their shoes and the court stenographers. It is amazing yet totally unsurprising that the book Heilemann and Halperin wrote made such a splash – full of sound and fury and rumor signifying nothing.