The most remarkable thing about Tina Fey’s SNL skit about Sarah Palin’s notorious Couric interview wasn’t the accuracy of her impersonation. It was the fact that the joke spoke for itself so plainly in the verbatim repetition of Palin’s words. If there’s a joke in this week’s film recommendation, it’s of a similar form. Julianne Moore plays Palin in Game Change, the HBO adaptation of the “high risk, high reward” selection of a running mate capable of shoring up the McCain campaign’s lack of popularity with younger—and especially female—voters.
A skin-headed Woody Harrelson plays Steve Schmidt, the campaign’s senior strategist. In a textbook case of the Halo Effect in action, Schmidt champions Palin once her inimitable charm compels him to leave her competence in politics and foreign affairs unquestioned. He easily sells the rest of the team on Palin’s suitability, even over McCain’s preference for Joe Lieberman. Notwithstanding the popularity and momentum gained by Palin’s rousing speech at the RNC upon accepting the nomination, Schmidt soon realizes that Palin is more of a liability than he had anticipated. Before long, the McCain campaign had to grapple with Troopergate, the Couric interview, and Palin’s general inability to differentiate between North and South Korea or between the federal government and the Federal Reserve.
She also didn’t handle with much grace the creeping awareness that she had bitten off much, much more than she could chew. At times, she became catatonic; at other times, she was violently resentful at the way she felt treated by the staff. And her petulant outbursts never make clear whether Palin blames it all on herself or the “lame-stream media” (Harold Pollack is quite right on this one – why a mother to a physically disabled child coined the term “lame-stream media” just shows what a wasted opportunity Palin was for the country).
The two main characters both undergo a sad development throughout the film. Schmidt begins the campaign with ambitions of installing a noble and worthy leader in the Oval Office. But by the end, he happily jettisons that aspiration when he suggests that Palin ought to memorize 25 answers to pre-packaged debate questions, just to forestall the impending catastrophe of the VP debate against Biden. The plan works beautifully, and he oddly appears not so much relieved as he is proud of the Pygmalion he’s helped produce. For her part, Palin also goes through an un-flattering development. She begins as the hockey mom whose principal concerns are understandably with her constituents back home in Alaska. But that admirable concern eventually becomes a parochial distraction from more pressing national matters, and it’s also a leading indicator of Palin’s weakening capacity to cope under the pressures of office. It’s therefore all the more sad when she concludes the campaign convinced that she’s outgrown Alaska, as though obscurity doesn’t suit her any more.
Even-handedness is never assured in political dramas of this sort—especially when, as here, the wounds of history remain so fresh—but Game Change has an air of fairness without flattering any egos. McCain, played by Ed Harris in an uncharacteristically middling performance, declines to intervene once Palin’s incompetence becomes apparent for fear that she may direct her anger toward him. Neither character seems particularly courageous as a result. Nevertheless, both of them inspire considerable sympathy: McCain, for the sense in which he feels authentic disappointment at the way the campaign inspired such vitriol toward Obama among the Republican base; Palin, for the sense in which she ingenuously aspires to being the next Reagan, only to be told that she’s not a fit successor.
On this last point, two of my favorite scenes are close to the very end, when Palin voices her determination to deliver a concession speech alongside McCain’s. Her interactions with McCain as he passes along the torch of the Republican party, and Schmidt as he hopes to keep the honor of politics intact are potent and well-wrought. While McCain encourages Palin to strive for something bigger, Schmidt voices the audience’s urgent hope that Palin be reminded of her limits. Presumably Schmidt’s guilt from having been the one to champion Palin’s selection all those months earlier leads to this one scene as a great payoff.