Politics as Pop Culture


Political junkies have been anticipating this film for months and months. On Saturday, HBO debuts "Game Change." That's the film about the failed presidential candidacy of Senator John McCain. Much of the anticipation is over the portrayal of McCain's running mate, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. Here's TV critic Eric Deggans.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: There were a lot of good stories from the 2008 presidential election, but the film "Game Change" focuses on John McCain's best asset and most unpredictable weakness.


JULIANNE MOORE: (As Sarah Palin) Senator, I am honored to be chosen as your running mate.

DEGGANS: That's not Sarah Palin four years ago. That's "Game Change" star Julianne Moore.


MOORE: (As Sarah Palin) It turns out the women of America aren't finished yet, and we can shatter that glass ceiling once and for all.

DEGGANS: It's a remarkable performance. Moore mimics Palin's distinct speaking pattern, while avoiding a Tina Fey-style parody. As a political nerd, I love seeing "Game Change's" details on how candidates are coached for debates and interviews. In this session, Woody Harrelson as campaign manager Steve Schmidt discovers a problem while asking practice questions on the campaign bus.


WOODY HARRELSON: (As Steve Schmidt) How do you plan on maintaining our alliance with Great Britain on Iraq, even though support for the war there is at an all-time low?

MOORE: (As Sarah Palin) I think the United States has always maintained a great relationship with the queen. And John McCain will continue to have an open dialogue with her.

HARRELSON: (As Steve Schmidt) Governor, the queen is not the head of government in England. She's the head of state.

MOORE: (As Sarah Palin) Well then, who's the head of government?

HARRELSON: (As Steve Schmidt) The prime minister.

DEGGANS: A group of Palin's past and current aides have already denounced the film, which presents an emotionally fragile candidate unprepared for the job she's seeking. 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 that anecdote about the queen of England.

And they often humanize Palin. 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.


HARRELSON: (As Steve Schmidt) How's she look?

DAN DESMOND: (As Dr. Ollie) For a woman who's just had a baby, has a pregnant teen daughter and a son in Iraq, I'd say not half bad.

DEGGANS: Still, Palin fans won't enjoy the scenes where she fumbles facts or presses McCain aides to lie about her background. And you could ask why HBO's rehashing a four-year-old failure, just as the GOP is trying to retake the White House today.

But what "Game Change" also shows is how celebrity can eclipse knowledge in today's 24/7 political news culture. Remember, we actually thought Donald Trump seemed a possible candidate for this year's primary. HBO's film explains how the search for star power led McCain and Schmidt to choose Palin in the first place.


HARRELSON: (As Steve Schmidt) We live in the age of YouTube and the 24-hour news cycle. How else do you think a man who has absolutely no major life accomplishments is beating an American hero? We need to create a dynamic moment in this campaign, or we're dead.

DEGGANS: 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. HBO's "Game Change" feels like a prequel for the election we're experiencing right now. And regardless of party affiliation, that's the kind of movie I wouldn't mind watching anytime.

INSKEEP: Eric Deggans is the TV and media critic for the Tampa Bay Times.

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