‘It’s God’s plan’ a calm Sarah Palin (Julianne Moore) announces as she is chosen to become the Republican vice presidential nominee in the historic American election of 2008. The events themselves seem so fresh and vivid in the memory that to describe them as history feels somewhat redundant. We all remember the raised eyebrows and gasps of incredulity as the Governor of Alaska was plucked from relative obscurity to become one of the most recognised faces on the planet. Few could predict the ultimate outcome. Based largely on the political journal of the same name, Game Change tracks the decision by the McCain campaign team to hoist a ‘game changing element’ into the ring of the election. Head organiser Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson) believes that a fiery right wing candidate will boost bedrock support whilst her being a woman will cross the gender divide and provide a celebrity counter balance to Barack Obama’s unprecedented popularity. John McCain (Ed Harris) is delighted with the decision especially after her barnstorming opening speeches. However joy soon turns to dread as they discover that Palin is woefully ignorant on America’s key foreign policies. Public adulation turns to mockery and she soon begins to buckle under the strain of the campaign. The rest as they say is history…
The release date of Game Change has not gone unnoticed in political circles with Plain and McCain having accused the film of lies before having even watched it. With a new election looming the timing could not be more noticeable. Of course it is the portrayal and performances that will define such a project. As Palin, Julianne Moore is quite frankly a tour de force. Often critics get caught up in their own adjectives and hyperbole but in all sincerity; there are moments I forgot I was watching Julianne Moore. The physical and vocal ticks are uncanny yet there is a strong parallel between the images of Palin that we recall and the portrayed image that we were not privy to. Moore perfectly conveys the sense of someone desperately out of their depth yet refusing to fold. The media harassment that hounded her and her family is plain to see for all including those opposed to her politics. As much as race and age played a crucial factor in Obama and McCain’s public image, so to do the fact that Palin was a woman and may have forgotten (or overlooked) the frankly misogynistic attitude of many mainstream media outlets towards her at the time of her campaign. These elements are expertly woven by director Jay Roach into the narrative along with archive and interview footage edited to seem that the actors are interacting with their real life counterparts. This includes an incredibly self referential moment when a humiliated Palin watches the now infamous Saturday Night Live sketch with Tina Fey.
But it is in the ultimate treatment of Palin that the film falls short. Whilst casting her in sympathetic light for the opening act the descent into an ‘uncontrollable renegade’ seems to come too fast and comes off as a tad unconvincing, a shame considering the initial scenes. There is a genuine punch the air moment in the third act when Schmidt (a brilliant Harrelson) puts her firmly in place whilst retaining a professional tone but it’s the one subtle moment toward the finale that you can increasingly feel the melodrama creeping in. The film can’t decide to ultimately exonerate her or to condemn her. It doesn’t help that McCain himself is pretty much side lined by the drama. Ed Harris is a magnificent screen presence and though certainly not up to Moore’s pedigree he definitely has McCain’s physicality nailed. Yet he is reduced to watching from the side lines occasionally stepping forward to deliver a bit of sage advice for the ‘young firebrands.’ It’s a waste of a great performer and whilst I normally wouldn’t mind in any other work I severely doubt the actual John McCain swears so much. It passes over from shocking into quite frankly silly.
HBO have maintained a high standard of quality across a range of platforms and to a degree it’s really encouraging to see a television movie draw such talent to it and get such a wide release. I don’t think it’s flawless by any means though I concede that projects like this will always divide opinion in their portrayal of such recent events. The powerhouse performances see it through however and with the election just around the corner who knows; maybe we’ll be back here in four years?