Game Change

Watching the HBO Original Film, Game Change, which aired last night, Saturday, March 10th, I had my closest look at American politics since I had read Hunter S. Thompson’s superb book, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 and the Bob WoodwardCarl Bernstein books, All The President’s Men and The Final Days. All three of these books were probably the root cause of my disinterest in matters political that followed and has stayed the course ever since. I’m not counting the wonderful film The American President with Michael Douglas and Annette Bening which had the look and feel of politics but was pure fiction.

I had moved to Florida at the end of May in 2008. Never registered. So at best, I would be a spectator in the 2008 Presidential campaign; only I didn’t choose even that limited role at the time.

Most all of what I saw in this film was not only new to me, but was news to me, while being old news to those who follow American politics. There were four main players in this film: Ed Harris as Senator John McCain, Julianne Moore as Governor Sarah Palin, Woody Harrelson as Steve Schmidt who was McCain’s senior political advisor and strategist, and Sarah Paulson as Nicolle Wallace who served as Palin’s media coach and senior advisor. Adjunct to them, as the fifth and sixth leading players, were Jamey Sheridan as Mark Salter who was McCain’s Chief of Staff and speech writer, and Peter MacNicol who portrayed Rick Davis who was McCain’s National Campain Manager.

At the very beginning of the film, Harrelson as Schmidt, is being interviewed by the CNN newsman Anderson Cooper. The time is post election in 2008. Barack Obama has won the election, and would become the 44th President of the United States.

Anderson says, “For you, picking Sarah Palin was about winning the election, not necessarily about who’s going to be best as Vice President.”

Schmidt says, “My job is to give political advice. We needed to do something bold to try and win the race.”

Cooper nods and says, “If you had it to do over again, would you have her on the ticket?”

Schmidt, looking off to the side, pointedly says nothing. Fade out. This scene will be repeated, with a comment added by Schmidt at the very end of the film. More on that later.

Now the film flashes back to August of 2007. After a quick montage of TV talking heads announcing the results of various primaries, we get CNN’s Wolf Blitzer telling us that John McCain has won the Republican nomination to contest the 2008 election. “What a historical night,” said Blitzer.

Later, after performing weakly in the polls, McCain reshuffles his campaign team and brings in Steve Schmidt. McCain’s team had crunched the numbers. They thought they had 80% of the men, but only 20% of the women. They deemed Barack Obama as a star, a celebrity, and a man with tons of charisma. Obama was an African-American and the McCain folks thought they needed a candidate who not only had ‘star’ qualities but also one that, like Obama, was a step away from the usual situation – that politicians on a national platform would be older white males. So selecting a woman seemed the perfect game plan. In other terms, it was a ‘Game Change’ that looked just right.

After reviewing a number of other women – they studied clips on Youtube – they latched on to the Alaskan Governor, Sarah Palin. While the standard vetting procedures would normally take a few months – this time the vetting process was done in five days. Why the rush? The expediency was necessary because the Convention was looming.

top Ed Harris and Julianne Moore, bottom Joe McCain and Sarah Palin

So Palin is brought in. Moore is excellent as Palin. She not only has the look, and speech patterns and accents down, but she also brought to the screen all of the dynamic that made Palin so attractive to the nation’s Republican members and supporters. Trust me, I think Julianne Moore is going to win an Emmy for this portrayal. She’s so very good, that you’ll forget this is a film, and an actress in a role. As written, it is a beautiful role for the actress playing the part, while simultaneously being something that the real Palin will not be pointing to with pride. As I write this, we know that Palin has not only distanced herself from the film, but she’s also refused to watch it.

Palin’s opening remarks in her very first public meeting after being announced as McCain’s running mate as Vice President at the the 2008 Republic Party’s national convention really took me by surprise. Back then, I knew Palin’s name. A friend had once asked me if I thought Palin was ‘hot’. I knew about that, but not much more than that.

Q – What’s the difference between a Hockey Mom and a Pit Bull?
A – Lipstick

That was the original Palin in that clip. You can see Moore speaking the same line in the trailer further down the page in this review. So Moore as Palin is welcomed aboard. I’m not going to go past this in terms of describing it scene by scene. Instead let’s discuss some realities and the questions that must come.

Game Change, directed by Jay Roach, is an adaption for film by Danny Strong taken from the best selling book, Game Change written by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. The book is more than just McCain and Palin. The book discussed the Clintons, Obama, and the election, which they call the race of a lifetime. Therefore, the HBO film we’ve got comes from just a portion of the book.

So even though the film isn’t about the entire book, all of what we see comes from the book, and likely research. This brings up the question that since the film is not a flattering portrayal of Palin, where did the information come from?

That is a major question because it is more than likely that much of the film and the book came from sources within McCain’s campaign. Do the terms ax-to-grind, disgruntled, dissatisfied, and unhappy come to mind?

Well if you haven’t thought of them, you should. Which leads us to another question. What ever happened to loyalty? Aren’t some things that happen behind closed doors, in offices, airplanes, and even buses and taxis that might be considered skull-sessions, strategy meetings, planning and so forth – aren’t these supposed to be off-the-record? Are we going to see future candidates for national offices get this same kind of treatment? As Sarah Palin herself said many times, ‘You betcha!’.

Now we are getting to the crux of the film. The McCain/Palin ticket did not win the election. That much is history. Were Palin’s shortcomings of knowledge about world politics and even US politics why the election did not go to them?

I think that to ignore those facts would be wrong. But to lay the blame all on Palin wouldn’t be right either, So what if she didn’t know that Al Quaeda attacked us on 9-11 not Saddam Hussein. So what if she didn’t realize that the head of Britain’s government wasn’t the Queen. Or that she didn’t know what the Fed was. Or her lack of knowledge about South Korea and North Korea being separate countries. Palin didn’t walk in and announce that she wanted the job as McCain’s running mate. Instead they asked her to join the ticket. They asked her to make her whole life a matter of public interest. They asked her to perform on the political stage in the country with the most intense as well as sometime savage, and other times stupid, media coverage on the planet.

Since the election was lost – wasn’t it due to the lack of adequate vetting?  Palin’s being on the ticket was wrong because she wasn’t qualified. She didn’t have what it takes to be one heart beat away from becoming the President of the United States. She was a Governor. but she was also a woman who was mother to five children. A mother who had a son off at war in Iraq. A parent who had a teenage daughter that was pregnant. And she had a child with Down’s syndrome. These weren’t negatives going in. During the campaign, they were the very facts that endeared her to millions of people. They were the very facts that this or any countries’ women would and could identify with.

But the election was still lost. Palin lost her way along the way. There was the disastrous interview with Katie Couric. There was the Vice Presidential debate with Joe Biden whom Palin called O’Biden despite being prepped and prepped that his name was Biden. Yes Palin lost her way. She became someone who was in the center ring of the American media circus which was the Election Campaign of 2008. The McCain camp later said she went rogue and veered away from the game plan. Schmidt said that he could not handle her. Palin said, “I am not your puppet!”

They said she loved being the media darling when she was the media darling, but then she resented the intrusive media when things started to go bad. I think the process of running on a presidential ticket is at the heart of the film. I can state that the problem wasn’t just Palin. The problem wasn’t that they wanted a woman on the ticket. They just didn’t get all their facts straight when they brought her in, and then they couldn’t manage her when it was necessary.

But that ignores the fact that McCain himself was a not only a heroic guy, but he wasn’t a Senator who was willing to fight hard enough when it mattered most. The film plays up his decency – no mud-slinging campaign for him. Admirable – of course. But a doomed strategy. By the time he did come out swinging, it was too late.

As for Palin, the way that she’s presented is often endearing when she’s on her game, but wrenching and difficult when she wasn’t. While not flattered by the script, Palin certainly emerges as a sympathetic figure. While it is easier to label her as a person totally wrong for the job as VP, it wasn’t wrong to have a woman on the ticket. Maybe with a decent vetting procedure, and a lot more time, they might have molded her into a more sure-footed politician. But none of that happened. And that’s what the film is about.

Basically, I can summarize the film with two quotes from Harrelson’s Steve Schmidt. When it became obvious that coaching her, over and over about real politics and foreign policy wasn’t going to work, Schmidt said, “She’s a great actress, right? Why don’t we give her some lines?”.

Finally, refer back to the film’s opening moments when Schmidt was being interviewed by CNN’s Anderson Cooper. Only this time at the very end of the film we get to hear what Schmidt said in reply to Cooper:

Cooper: “If you had it to do over again, would you have her on the ticket?”

Schmidt: “You don’t get to go back in time Anderson, and have do-overs in life.”

Yes, I think this was a great movie. By all means see it – even if you aren’t politically savvy or have only a slender interest in American politics. For sure it will be available on DVD at some point in the future. McCain was a true American hero, but this film wasn’t about him, as much as it was about his running mate, Sarah Palin. And somewhere inside of all of you, as you watch this film, you should come away thinking that this film isn’t about how great our political process is – instead it is about the weakness within that process that we should be concerned about.


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