Review: HBO’s ‘Game Change’ takes superficial look at Sarah Palin

We have become so strident and divided on the subject of politics in this country that it’s easy to look at the new film “Game Change” (Saturday at 9 p.m. on HBO), about Sarah Palin’s role in the 2008 presidential election, and assume that those who lean to the left will love the movie for its portrait of her as hopelessly unqualified for the job, while those who lean right will dismiss the film as a hatchet job by the media elites.
But from where I sit – as someone who voted for Obama in ’08 and was glad that Palin didn’t end up a heartbeat away from the Oval Office(*) – “Game Change” is a big disappointment, a broadside at a very big target, and a waste of some impressive talent in front of and behind the camera.
(*) As I said in Monday’s podcast post, I’ve had a No Politics rule for comments on the blog for years, precisely because everyone lost their damn minds during the run-up to the election in question. It’s impossible to enforce that rule entirely while discussing a movie with this subject matter, so I’m going to ask you to attempt to remain civil when addressing both each other and the figures depicted in the movie. And if people can’t do that, I’m going to have a very quick trigger finger on shutting down comments on this post altogether. Life’s too short.
UPDATE: And we actually made it more than 48 hours from the posting of the review before I had to shut down the comments over a small handful of people launching personal/political attacks rather than just discussing the movie. Better than I had feared, worse than I had hoped. Oh, well. Apologies to everyone who was well-behaved, but the way our commenting system is set up, I can’t disable comments without all the pre-existing ones being removed from the post.
The film reunites director Jay Roach and writer Danny Strong, who collaborated on HBO’s Emmy-winning “Recount,” about the Bush/Gore election. It’s based on the book by reporters Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. But where “Game Change” the book was as much about the Democratic primary race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton – if not more – the film has chosen to focus entirely on John McCain’s selection of Palin as his running mate, and on the incredible ups and downs his campaign experienced as a result.
The filmmakers have said they decided to set the Obama/Clinton end of things aside because they worried the film would play too much like a campaign commercial this close to President Obama’s bid for re-election. Maybe that’s true, but it certainly feels like a movie about Palin (played by Julianne Moore) being in way over her head – and McCain (Ed Harris) and campaign advisor Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson) realizing too late what a mistake they made in choosing her – is a much easier story to tell, with a tragic hero in McCain (whom the movie argues went against his own principles to try to win the election) and an obvious villain in Palin.
Palin and her people have already objected to the film’s depiction of her, but many of the incidents in the film are either matters of public record (her disastrous Katie Couric interview) or were told to the authors by multiple members of the campaign.
My problem with the film is that it’s all surface. It’s Moore doing a Sarah Palin impression – maybe not as caricatured as Tina Fey, but not terribly far off – as opposed to giving an actual performance. Neither Moore’s acting nor Strong’s script make any real attempt to understand who this woman was before she moved into this huge spotlight and how (or if) she changed as a result of the attention. I came out of “Game Change” feeling I didn’t know her any better than I did four years ago just watching the real Palin on the news.
And though I was not and am not a fan of Sarah Palin, the film demonizes her just as much as she does the people with whom she disagrees. It suggests she single-handedly torpedoed McCain’s chance of winning the election, while glossing over McCain’s activity around the time of the financial crisis that was arguably much more damning. (Last year’s topical HBO film “Too Big to Fail” did a better job of illustrating this part of the story.) And even her strengths are presented as a kind of backhanded compliment: we see over and over what a charismatic public speaker she was, yet those gifts are viewed as coming from what Schmidt describes as “the greatest actress in the history of American politics.” Palin didn’t know what she was talking about, the movie insists, but could sound very convincing while doing it.  
Because the movie isn’t interested in Palin’s perspective (other than to show her as a devoted family woman who melted down when kept apart from Todd and the kids for too long), and because McCain quickly insulated himself from what Palin was up to, the real lead of the film is Harrelson, and he does fine work as a veteran political operative who thought he had seen it all until he met Sarah Palin. So does Sarah Paulson as campaign staffer Nicole Wallace, whose growing disdain for Palin ultimately convinced her not to vote for McCain on November 4.
Ultimately, though, “Game Change” is exactly what you would assume an HBO film about Sarah Palin to be, and possibly even a little bit less than that. Palin isn’t quite as broadly-drawn as, say, many of the Republican bogeymen on “The West Wing,” where even though I agreed with the writer’s politics, I cringed at the one-sided portrait of the other side, but nor is it particularly insightful or three-dimensional in telling this very familiar, very divisive story. Even if you take the side of the authors and filmmakers over Palin and believe that the film is 100% accurate, it doesn’t shed enough new light on things to be worth the trouble of making, or watching.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at