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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This Saturday evening, HBO presents a made-for-TV movie called "Game Change" based on the non-fiction book about the 2008 presidential race by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. The telemovie focuses on Republican Senator John McCain's selection of Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running mate.

HBO's "Game Change" has been attacked in advance by a Sarah Palin PAC that labels the film HBO fiction. It's also been attacked by Palin herself, who said recently on Fox News: Hollywood lies are Hollywood lies. John McCain has said he won't watch the film. Our TV critic David Bianculli has a review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: There are times when TV dramas about national politics and politicians deserve criticism, even ridicule, for their fast-and-loose narratives and characterizations. Recent miniseries about the Reagans and the Kennedys, loaded with unsubstantiated dialogue and action, are only two very fresh examples. But "Game Change" is entertaining and commendable, precisely because it stays so close to the facts, not because it strays from them.

The TV movie is directed by Jay Roach and adapted by Danny Strong. They're the pair that presented "Recount", an earlier HBO movie about a stranger-than-fact presidential race: the 2000 George Bush-Al Gore hanging-chad contest. In that 2008 movie, Laura Dern played Katherine Harris, the Florida secretary of state who found herself suddenly in the limelight and at the center of a huge national political controversy.

Dern played her beautifully, but also comically - and I can sympathize with those who have yet to see "Game Change" and are wary that Sarah Palin, played by Julianne Moore, may be treated as even more of an object of ridicule here. But she isn't. Palin is portrayed with empathy. And that focus, along with Moore's absorbingly effective performance, makes "Game Change" work.

HBO's publicity team has leaped into the fray, defending the accuracy of the production and pointing out that screenwriter Danny Strong conducted 25 additional interviews as supplementary research for his screenplay. The book was criticized and questioned for not citing its sources. But it's easy, watching the movie, to guess the identity of the primary sources.

In "Game Change," the political aides who end up clashing with Palin the most - Woody Harrelson as Steve Schmidt, and Sarah Paulson as Nicolle Wallace - get the most screen time of any aides, and are presented the most positively. Yet the story itself, of why and how Palin was plucked from thin air - or at least Alaska - to bolster the Republican presidential ticket is strong enough, and complicated enough, that this HBO drama wisely plays by an old political broadcasting rule.

Dramatically, at least, it gives both sides equal time. In the book version of "Game Change," Sarah Palin didn't emerge until well past the halfway point. Advance criticism from those who have yet to see the drama, charges that HBO is telling only part of the book's story. That's perfectly true. But dramatically, in TV-movie terms, it also makes perfect sense. HBO's "Game Change" is the story of a woman thrown suddenly into the national arena, playing a political game with enormous stakes, and trying to impress and improve in one media interview and televised debate after another - and not always succeeding.

The Tina Fey impression of Sarah Palin, which is shown in "Game Change", was all caricature and exaggeration, honing in on her ill-informed answers, her photogenic appeal and her sentences to nowhere. Julianne Moore's Sarah Palin, though, is a character, not a caricature. When advisers push her too hard to study for a debate or an interview, she pushes back, or shuts down - and the underlying tone of those scenes, on both sides, is frustration.

In a car heading to an interview with CBS news anchor Katie Couric, Sarah Palin, played by Moore, is in the back seat writing something while adviser Nicolle, played by Sarah Paulson, is in the front seat trying to prep her. But Nicolle encounters resistance because the McCain campaign hasn't come through on some Alaskan poll figures requested by Palin.

(SOUNDBITE OF HBO MOVIE, "GAME CHANGE")

SARAH PAULSON: (As Nicolle Wallace) Knowing Katie, I'm sure she's going to ask about your stance on feminism.

JULIANNE MOORE: (As Sarah Palin) Did you get the numbers?

PAULSON: (As Nicolle Wallace) The what?

MOORE: (As Sarah Palin) My approval rating in Alaska.

PAULSON: (As Nicolle Wallace) They're not in yet.

MOORE: (As Sarah Palin) I am trying to trust you people, but you're making it really hard for me.

PAULSON: (As Nicolle Wallace) I'm sorry, Governor. I'll call Steve right away about it.

MOORE: (As Sarah Palin) Yeah. Like that'll do anything.

PAULSON: (As Nicolle Wallace) What are you working on, Governor?

MOORE: (As Sarah Palin) It's a questionnaire from the Matsu Valley Frontiersmen in Wasilla. You know, an Alaska paper.

PAULSON: (As Nicolle Wallace) Don't you think we should prepare for your national Couric interview first?

MOORE: (As Sarah Palin) No, Nicolle, I don't. This is my priority. I am not going to ignore the people of Alaska anymore.

BIANCULLI: That awkward, weighty silence is something you hear, more and more, as "Game Change" proceeds. In some scenes, as advisers try to prepare her for the next interview or debate, Moore's Sarah Palin has almost no lines at all. Instead, she just ignores the questions, taps out text messages on her cell phone, and goes into a passive-aggressive cone of silence until the other person gives up and retreats.

Both sides have reasons for their frustration, but the whole point here is that there are two sides. They should be unified, working as one political machine. But in politics, as in life, personal agendas and personalities have a way of surfacing, and even dominating. That happens in the HBO movie "Game Change" just as it happened on the campaign trail in 2008 - and just as it's happening now, in a political firestorm about the very existence of this telemovie, much less its content.

But HBO's "Game Change," to me, offers two things that make it praiseworthy: It's fair and balanced.

GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.

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