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Game Change

2012 | 118 min | TV-MA | 1.78:1

Game Change


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Game Change Preview  

 / 10
Preview by Brian Orndorf, March 7, 2012

Just when you thought it was safe to put 2008 to bed, here comes “Game Change,” which dredges up all the controversy and electricity surrounding the decision to pair Governor Sarah Palin with presidential candidate John McCain. Forget Obama and his historic political run, forget Joe Biden and his path to the White House. “Game Change” is solely about Palin and the myriad of ways to portray the monumentally divisive figure in an unflattering light. After all, it’s a comedy, for at least 30% of its running time, leaving the rest a condensed, perplexing vision of Washington ambition and insistent ego, leaving the movie somewhere between a cartoon and a mean-spirited prank.

Senator John McCain (Ed Harris) has found himself behind Senator Barack Obama in presidential election polls, facing an impossible task of competition with a massively funded rock star of a candidate. Bringing in campaign strategist Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson) to help shake up the election effort, McCain is confronted with the daunting task of picking a running mate. Avoiding the “white guy” routine, Schmidt introduces the possibility of Sarah Palin (Julianne Moore), a tough, fetching Alaskan governor who would attract enormous media attention for the campaign, matching Obama’s stranglehold on news cycles. Hurriedly bringing in Palin, Schmidt and his team, including advisor Nicolle Wallace (Sarah Paulson), are left without a full opportunity to vet their choice, trusting her gubernatorial skills in Alaska will suffice. Instead of a “game changer,” Palin emerges as a massive headache, lacking basic geopolitical awareness and professional tact, while growing increasingly demanding as the weeks tick down to Election Day.

To bring the 2010 book “Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime” to life, screenwriter Danny Strong has done an intriguing job whittling the expansive source material down to just two people. Gone is the larger sense of political movement and wide array of critical players in the presidential competition. For “Game Change,” there’s only McCain and Palin, fixating on a delicious story of how this Alaskan governor with little practice outside of her secluded state was handed a shot at the vice presidency without anyone actually checking to see if she had the skills for the job. Covered relentlessly in the media, the story of Sarah Palin is once again hoisted up high for the world to inspect, with this effort blurring the line between an honest evaluation and a distasteful farce.

Directed by Jay Roach, “Game Changer” has difficulty establishing a secure tone for the production. Shot like a standard message-minded pay cable trophy magnet, the picture commences as a serio-comic look into McCain’s woes, where the dazed, aged senator sat back and watched his campaign of American values be trounced by Obama’s hip appeal, losing his hold on potential voters. The operation needed a vice president candidate that could shake up the election, finding ideal spitfire in Palin and her commitment to hockey moms and pro-life issues. She was female, attractive, and hungry -- a gift to the McCain organization desperate for anything that could tip the scales in their favor. Unfortunately, they burned through the vetting process too quickly, and Schmidt didn’t ask enough questions, unleashing Palin before they had a chance to understand her personality quirks and lack of political acumen.

Granted, Palin’s tale is tremendous, overflowing with critical mistakes and a fascinating bloat of ego. I wouldn’t dare defend Palin and her distasteful acts of self-promotion, but “Game Change” doesn’t treat the woman with necessary dimensions. Strong’s Palin is a ball-busting, phone-throwing liar without any intellectual might, with the picture portraying the governor as unreasonable and mentally challenged, without awareness of anything outside of make-up and baby-making. She’s an inexperienced goof viewed as ideally suited for the Republican Party, encouraging conservative support with her sass, skirts, and ease on a podium. Roach plays the Palin Express broadly, dropping any sensitivity about the situation to reach cartoon heights of emotional breakdowns and aide eye-rolls, who watch the monster they’ve created with utter horror. While Moore’s impression is spot-on, the characterization is no deeper than Tina Fey’s flamethrower work on “Saturday Night Live” (her skits make a cameo appearance here), urging “Game Change” to rely excessively on caricature (at one point, Todd Palin is shown in bed reading a snowmobile magazine), not compassion. Perhaps there’s authenticity here with Palin’s manic, bullying, carb-deficient ways, but those engrossing, fruitful shades of nuanced behavior deserve a better film than “Game Change,” which always appears one step away from a “Yakety Sax” montage.

It’s interesting to watch how Strong treats the two candidates. While Palin is transformed into Ralph Wiggum, McCain is fitted for a halo, characterized here as a man refusing to play dirty politics against Obama, only giving in to cheap tactics when defeat seems assured. Although foul-mouthed and a hardcore drinker, McCain is depicted with respect -- the film ultimately blaming his eventual loss on Palin’s stomach-turning shenanigans. Punches are pulled when dealing with the senator, accentuating the relentless grind against his running mate.

Roach doesn’t seem to know what type of film he’s making with “Game Change,” coming across so anti-Palin, it’s appears only programmed liberal audiences will likely get anything out of the picture. At the screening I attended, a woman yelled out “bitch!” during a Palin close-up near the end of the movie. That type of reaction isn’t typically encouraged by a rational, thought-provoking feature covering an incredible political journey.

Starring: Julianne Moore, Ed Harris, Woody Harrelson, Sarah Paulson, Peter MacNicol, Ron Livingston
Director: Jay Roach

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