So I was out most of the day and had to come into Jay Roach’s “Game Change,” which premiered this evening on HBO, somewhere in the middle. No way I was gonna wait and watch it all in one fell swoop. I’ve been eager to see this and, particularly, Julianne Moore’s performance as Sarah Palin, for some time now. When it was over, I waited an hour, caught the first half and here we are. Full disclosure.
And make no mistake, Moore OWNS this film. But not in the way you’d have expected. Sure, any actress tasked with portraying a lightning rod like Palin is going to get a lot of scrutiny and consideration, and the performance is bound to play up broad elements because, well, Palin can be a broad character.
But Moore hits the deep fissures of fear and mortal terror, emotional overload and, ultimately, unbridled narcissism expertly — at times, profoundly. It’s one of her finest performances. And while I won’t say I was brought too far into empathetic territory, I was happy with the textured consideration that really gives you a reason to maintain issue with who Palin is, deep down: an egomaniac.
And every note of the performance is geared toward accenting that, whether it’s Palin’s panic over looking fat (later buttressed by Woody Harrelson’s Steve Schmidt noting a crash low carb diet), her obsession with how she’s viewed back home via polling in Alaska, the glimmer in her eye when the campaign turns the trick and basically just treats her like an actress with lines to read, thereby ensuring a decent debate performance with Senator Joe Biden (“I SO don’t want to go back to Alaska.”) and, inevitably, her insistence on upsetting the natural and respected order of election night concession speeches. On and on, it’s about Palin the wannabe, the reality TV star. And that’s who she is.
(Hey, take issue and umbrage if you want. John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s book upon which the film was based was vetted and re-vetted. These are the facts. And if you’re tweeting nonsense like, “Retweet if you think that HBO’s #gamechange was biased and completely unfair to Sarah Palin and the McCain campaign,” crack a book for a change and learn a few things.)
So regarding Moore, I have to disagree with HitFix’s Alan Sepinwall, who found the film to be a “superficial” look at Palin and that it’s “a broadside at a very big target.” I mean, can you really broadside something so many refuse to believe as fact? And I most especially disagree with the notion that Moore is doing an “impression” of Palin “as opposed to giving an actual performance.” There’s a lot going on under the surface with this portrayal and I’d argue Moore is way too good an actress to stoop to imitation.
Anyway, others have rightly noted the work from Harrelson, Ed Harris (as McCain) and Sarah Paulson (as McCain-Palin senior adviser Nicolle Wallace). Harrelson in particular finds an intriguing keel, watching with abject terror as the monster to his Frankenstein takes the spotlight, craves it, feeds on it and shifts the atmosphere of the campaign into one of radio talk-show hate speech and riles a moronic but, until then, safely slumbering set of American humanity. But I can’t imagine the takeaway here being anything other than glowing admiration for what Moore has done. She better be in the Emmy conversation later this year. I’m sure she will be.
“Game Change” will air on HBO consistently enough over the next few weeks. Give it a look if you didn’t catch it tonight. On top of being a stellar depiction of an unfortunate watershed moment in American politics, it’s also just a damn fine yarn, a compelling story well-conveyed.
But thematically, it’s rich. “You’re so caught up in winning you start to lose yourself.” That’s a line Harris’s McCain utters in the film’s first scene, at a time when McCain was looking like an also-ran in the race for the 2008 Republican nomination. Those 11 words are the movie. And it’s echoed toward the end of the story, when the idea of the film as “Misery,” Palin as Annie Wilkes crossed my mind. “Game Change” almost tiptoes into horror territory at times. I was afraid, mainly for McCain and his legacy, held hostage by an infant.
For year-round entertainment news and awards season commentary follow @kristapley on Twitter.
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