A Reckless Choice
Woody Harrelson, Julianne Moore, Sarah Paulson, Ed Harris, Jamey Sheridan, Peter MacNicol
HBO: 10 Mar 2012
This is not the campaign I wanted to run.
—John McCain (Ed Harris)
“No news story lasts more than 48 hours anymore. News is no longer meant to be remembered, it’s just entertainment.” Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson) gazes intently at Sarah Palin (Julianne Moore) as he bestows on her these words of wisdom. When the camera in Game Change cuts back to her, she looks… perplexed… reassured… uneasy… acquiescent. Indeed, a number of responses pass over Sarah’s face as she listens. “If you hit your convention speech out of the park,” Steve sums up, “The next news cycle will be the comeback of Sarah Palin.” Her eyes narrow. “Yeah,” she nods, her body rocking with resolve. “I can do that.”
Of course, Sarah Palin does do that, pretty much exactly. Following the flurry of news and rumor around the announcement of her candidacy, her remarkable performance at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul not only impresses delegates on the floor but also transports Palin into a luminous, adoring international spotlight… for 48 hours, anyway. Until the cycle changes again, and Palin and her handlers are again sent into upsets and panics.
This is the story Game Change tells, the story of the news cycle. Sarah Palin is the occasion for this story, but she’s mostly incidental. It’s true that she provides an especially vivid illustration of how the news cycle does its work, how it inflates and destroys, how it follows rather than leads, how it eats itself. But the film shows too how she’s unprepared and mishandled, how the vetting process goes awry (no one asks her a question about positions or even her grasp of issues), and then how increasingly frantic efforts to prep her for public appearances—interviews, say—go weirdly but not unpredictably wrong. In Game Change, these episodes are sometimes entertaining, but they’re not news.
The film, premiering on HBO on 10 March amid its own flurry of buzz and fury, has inspired a bit of predictable pushback from SarahPac, as well as a cursory dismissal from Palin: she hasn’t seen the movie, but she doesn’t need to, because, you know, “Being in the good graces of Hollywood’s ‘Team Obama’ isn’t top of my list.”
Palin’s assumptions notwithstanding, Game Change is not one-sided, exactly. It is, instead, uneven and episodic. Certainly it shows that the “Vice Presidential campaign,” as Palin too aggressively terms it, runs like a roller coaster from its inception. Rick Davis (Peter MacNicol) appears to pull her YouTube video out of Google air, and then he and Schmidt make the sell to the self-proclaimed “risk-taker” John McCain (Ed Harris). The presidential candidate enters the scene in his boxers, then, and as he listens to his trusted seconds, spreads his arms wide across a sofa, looking at once goofy and overwhelming. Though McCain tries once more to choose Joe Lieberman (Austin Pendleton), the buddy with whom he travels so amiably, ” he finally goes along with the choice he guesses might “be too outside the box.”
Neither McCain nor Schmidt, who serves as something of a sane center for the churning chaos that follows, can know quite how “outside” their pick will be. Or rather, the film suggests, they could have known but did not do the work they need to do in order to know. (This cautionary part of the tale is embodied by Mark Salter [Jamey Sheridan], who says early on and more than once that she’s a bad pick.) As they learn the range and depth of her ignorance, close-ups show their rolling eyes or shaking heads (even Todd [David Barry Gray] looks worried as he watches her on TV with Katie Couric).
In an awkward effort to include an assortment of her hits and misses during 2008, the film pitches between well-known highs and lows, even descending into montages (with a country soundtrack). Here’s Sarah riding on the bus, or shopping for clothes, or learning the history of WWII (“This is flippin’ awesome,” she declares, note cards spread before her). And here she is not understanding basic questions (“Governor, do you know what the Fed is?”) or answers (“Saddam Hussein attacked us on 9/11”), and acting out (“You have ruined me!”). Here she is alone with Todd, having a conversation you can’t imagine being sourced (“You get yourself in trouble because they’re trying to turn you into something that you’re not,” he soothes his fretful wife, “You’ve got to do what you do, just talk to people the way that you talk to them”). And here, again and again, are the TV talking heads, condemning and celebrating her, treating her like a wild ride that delivers ratings each and every day.
Pitching between Palin’s dramatic successes (the Convention speech, the Vice Presidential debate) and utter disasters (Couric, SNL), the movie develops something like a pattern: repeatedly, Schmidt and Nicolle Wallace (Sarah Paulson) set to managing their candidate, trying to get her to prep, trying to assess the depth of her ignorance. And repeatedly, they’re mystified, not only by Sarah’s inability to focus, her distraction by irrelevant details, and her propensity for lying (“You have got to stop saying things to the press that are blatantly untrue”), but also by her apparent lapses into “some kind of comatose state.”
This state is visibly unnerving, as are her outbursts. After one of these, (“You’re overwhelming me with too much information!”), Wallace takes her own stand: “I never want to deal with that woman again,” she tells Steve’s voicemail. Following another, Steve calls McCain to say he “can’t control her anymore,” that he has no idea whether she’ll get on a campaign plane (say, to Michigan) or declare a difference between one America and another. Here McCain, who keeps his distance throughout the film, demurs, refusing to speak with her because, he says, “She might start turning on me.”
The saga of Sarah Palin 2008 now looks like history. But it’s an object lesson for right now, one that no one seems to have learned. For a moment in a cycle, she might have seemed formidable, even able to alter history, but that moment is past. That’s not to say a next moment in a next cycle won’t produce yet another celebrity, as the media system falls over itself to perpetuate itself. Game Change indicts that system, as it’s used and abused by one advisor and consultant after another, their rush to win a moment of a cycle at the expense of all else. Learning that Dick Cheney has called Palin a “reckless choice,” Salter makes clear what’s happened: “When you lose the moral high ground to Dick Cheney,” he says, “It’s time to rethink your entire life.” Or at least a moment of it.