Weekend Film Recommendation: Game Change

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.

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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.

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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.


“Waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists.”

St. Joan of the Tundra

Now, I’m not a Christian. So if Sarah Palin wants to associate a war crime with a Christian sacrament, it’s really no skin off my nose.

But if I were a Christian, I’d be pretty damned angry about this. It will be interesting to see whether any of the praying-aloud-in-the-marketplace-so-as-to-be-seen-of-men crowd has any problem with it.

Update I’m happy to see that one politically conservative Lutheran agrees with me.

Second update Rod Dreher is on the same page. I said “blasphemy;” he says “sacrilege.” Maybe it’s both; if not, I’m happy to defer to the expert.

Like Charles Krauthammer on the Bundy affair, Dreher is really hot under the collar:

Man, the 12 minute speech Sarah Palin gave to the NRA convention is awful. It’s just witless, red-meat blathering, delivered in that nasal whine of hers that makes it sound like she’s chewing wads of tinfoil. For people who like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they like.

I recall that the Terri Schiavo affair peeled some reality-based conservative and libertarian folks off the GOP bandwagon: not because the issue was so important in itself, but because the unreason and contempt for law the right-to-lifers displayed woke some people up to the fundamental bogisity of Karl Rove Republicanism. (If John Ellis Bush does run for President, I hope we will hear a lot about his role in that comedy of cruelty.)  

At some point, you say, “Wait a minute! If that’s what the people I’m with are saying, what am I doing with them?” (The day Lyndon Johnson, my political hero, said that voting for Gene McCarthy was unpatriotic because it would make the leadership in Hanoi happy was the day I started wearing a McCarthy button.)

It would be too much to hope that the combination of the Bundy debacle and Palin’s rant might similarly awaken any substantial number of the remaining GOP faithful, but this stuff has to hurt anyone with any intellectual self-respect who’s trying to hang on to both that self-respect and his Red Team membership. And the howls from the NRA crowd just make it that much worse.  

Third update Patrick Brennan at National Review says ” barbarism,” and offers a full-throated denunciation of torture from a Catholic perspective. Looks as if Gov. Half-Term isn’t entirely useless after all; she seems to have the capacity to focus some conservative minds.

I can’t say how happy it makes me to find myself on the same side as some Red Team thinkers on this question. Now if there were only a single GOP politician prepared to annoy the Palinites …



So Gingrich and Romney are fighting over which one is the true heir of Ronald Reagan. (And Sarah Palin thinks the Romneyites and the media are being mean to poor widdle Newtie.) Seems to me that depends on which aspect of the Reagan legacy you’re counting.

If you liked the idea of running a cocaine-dealing operation out of the White House basement, then Romney the CEO should be the better bet. But if what you really admire is selling weapons to Iran to finance an illegal war in Nicaragua, that’s the kind of hare-brained scheme that comes naturally to Gingrich but would never occur to Romney.

But the real essence of Reagan, it seems to me, was his post-modernism. Remember the woman who bought an orange with Food Stamps and a bottle of vodka with the change? Utterly impossible, of course. But that didn’t matter to Reagan; it was a good line, and he read it well, and its truth-value was utterly irrelevant.

In that regard, Romney wins the Reagan Look-Alike Contest hands-down. Gingrich tells his share of whoppers, but you get the sense (at least I do) that he knows he’s lying, and feels slightly bad about it. Romney, like Reagan, seems to regard politics as a truth-free zone, where you can say “I approve this message” one day and claim you never heard it the next, without even blushing.