Phillip V. Caruso/HBO
Ed Harris as John McCain and Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin in the HBO film
Ed Harris as John McCain and Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin in the HBO film Game Change. Phillip V. Caruso/HBO
There were a lot of good stories from the 2008 presidential election, including Hillary Clinton's serious run for the Democratic nomination, not to mention the election of the first African-American president. The whole story was covered in the bestselling — and controversial — book by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, Game Change.
On HBO on Saturday, the film Game Change focuses on the failed presidential candidacy of Sen. John McCain and especially on his best asset and most unpredictable weakness: his running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska. It's worth watching as a prequel to the election we're watching right now.
As a political nerd, I loved seeing Game Change's details on how candidates are coached for debates and interviews.
In one session on a campaign bus, campaign manager Steve Schmidt, played by Woody Harrelson, asks Palin a question about British support for the Iraq War. She responds by talking about the relationship with the queen and seems surprised when Schmidt tells her that the head of the British government isn't the queen, it's the prime minister.
As Palin prepares for more interviews and a debate, it becomes clear to the campaign staff that she doesn't understand a lot of basic policy issues, even as crowds love her and respond to her charisma.
A group of past and present Palin aides have already denounced the film. But the filmmakers say their script uses the book and their own interviews with more than two dozen Republicans who worked on the campaign. That's where they found the anecdote about the queen of England.
And the film often humanizes Palin. She connects with crowds, especially families with special-needs children, and ends up handling the debate better than the campaign aides thought she would. Even when her emotional problems led McCain and Schmidt to have a doctor secretly observe her at a party, he came to a simple conclusion: For a woman who just had a baby, has a son in Iraq and a pregnant teenage daughter, she's doing pretty well.
Julianne Moore is remarkable as Palin. She mimicks Palin's distinct speaking pattern, while avoiding a Tina Fey-style parody.
Still, Palin fans won't enjoy scenes where she fumbles facts or presses McCain aides to lie about her background. And you could ask why HBO is rehashing a 4-year-old failure just as the GOP is trying to retake the White House.
In the end, Palin's rise energized a deeply conservative wing of the Republican Party, which has kept this year's GOP primary in play. And the desire to bring Palin into the McCain campaign as a charismatic game-changer reflects an attitude that is present in this year's election, especially when you consider that Donald Trump was considered to be a real possibility for the Republican race.
"We live in the age of YouTube and the 24-hour news cycle," Schmidt tells McCain to convince him to bring Palin onboard. "We need to create a dynamic moment in this campaign or we're dead." Turns out, their dynamic moment wasn't enough to win the White House.
Eric Deggans is the TV and media critic for the Tampa Bay Times.