The overnight anointing of a political superstar is what’s on the menu in Game Change, HBO’s docudrama about John McCain and Sarah Palin’s 2008 ill-fated grab for the White House. And like the campaign it recreates, it’s a dish that’s hard to resist, offering a backstage pass to the bizarre arranged marriage of a grizzled political vet to a photogenic frontierswoman woefully unqualified to be vice president. It’s like a darkly comic retelling of Pygmalion, set against the backdrop of a national election, and it can be riveting stuff—just as it was the first time around. But Game Change is ultimately a depressingly sterile little film: a petty, literal-minded recrimination of big-ticket politics as nothing but a cunning, calculated and callow game of high-tech hucksterism. The message may feel dirty, but then, so does the movie.
Our entree into this world is campaign strategist Steve Schmidt: The furthest thing from a Karl Rove-type, Schmidt is played by Woody Harrelson as a level-headed problem-solver with a huge problem to solve—beating the increasingly unbeatable Obama. McCain (Ed Harris), meanwhile, is depicted as a stodgy but well-meaning and compassionate guy, whose instincts tell him to run a clean campaign, but whose handlers guide him into murky waters. He’s desperately in need of something shiny and new to dangle in front of the electorate, and Joe Lieberman—McCain’s choice for a running-mate—is definitely not it. The data dictates it should be a woman, Schmidt tells him, to bridge the gender gap. But who? A cursory YouTube search of female Republicans later turns up a clip of a Palin interview on Charlie Rose, and lightning strikes. A star is born.
That YouTube clip is our first glimpse of Julianne Moore’s Palin, and it’s a little jarring. Moore is a powerful actress tasked here with capturing a polarizing figure with whom we are all too familiar. The makeup and styling are perfect, the accent is in place, and Moore invests her Palin with everything she’s got—but there's something in her depiction that feels flat. You will laugh at Sarah, and several times pity her—Tina Fey’s classic Saturday Night Live sketches play a surprisingly pivotal part in her eventual undoing—but you will never truly care about Moore’s Palin, nor will you come out understanding her any better than you did going in.
As depicted in Game Change (and rebuked by the real Palin, who dismisses the film as liberal propaganda), Palin was by turns a dream and a disaster of a candidate. On the one hand, she electrified the electorate with a peculiar brand of folksiness that spoke to a broad swath of American voters searching for a feeling more than a platform. At the same time, according to the film, Palin possessed barely a sixth grader’s knowledge of world affairs. Among the more startling lapses in her cultural awareness: that Queen Elizabeth does not set U.K. foreign policy, that al-Qaeda was responsible for the 9/11 attacks, and that there exists both a North and a South Korea.
What unfolds is less a movie, more a clinical recreation of Palin’s various triumphs and flops in the months leading up to the election: Each road marker comes and goes—her convention debut, her Katie Couric interview fiasco, her vice presidential debate—and we watch right alongside McCain’s team, teetering on the edge of our seats, waiting to see if they successfully pull off their con. Through it all, we’re offered little psychological insight beyond Palin's own, glassy-eyed ambition and lack of humility. (Asked by Schmidt in one scene how she can remain so calm, she responds: “It’s God’s plan.”)
We know how it ends—they lose—but the film closes with one more tale of public record: Palin’s vetoed attempt to speak at McCain’s concession appearance. After keeping his cool for the entire campaign, Schmidt, freshly stung by defeat, finally loses it, and delivers a withering speech about the greatness of American history and Palin’s distorted sense of her place in it. In two short hours, we go from Pygmalion to Frankenstein, as the creator realizes he can’t, nor is he any longer required to, control the monster he’s unleashed.
Game Change airs this Saturday, March 10, at 9pm on HBO. Are you planning to watch?