My NPR review: HBO's Game Change emerges as a primer for understanding today's election
When it comes to Game Change, HBO's sprawling film about the ultimately failed 2008 presidential campaign of Republicans John McCain and Sarah Palin, what you believe will affect how you feel.
If you're willing to believe the filmmakers are as scrupulously accurate as they claim, then Game Change shows how the pressure of presidential politics pushed McCain into picking a running mate who wasn't nearly ready for the job.
Along the way, she excited a group of conservative voters who have since upended the Republican Party, pulling it further right politically and keeping the GOP nomination in 2012 a guessing game.
If you refuse to believe the filmmakers — the same guys who wrote and directed HBO's look at the messy 2000 election battle in Florida, Recount — then this will feel like another hit piece on a conservative hero, aimed at making the former governor of Alaska look stupid on a global stage.
That's a stance that would severely disappoint screenwriter Danny Strong, who developed Game Change's script from the best-selling 2010 book of the same name, conducting additional interviews with 25 sources from the McCain-Palin campaign himself.
"No Democrats were consulted in the making of this movie," said Strong, an actor (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) who also wrote Recount. "I had a dozen people tell me verbatim what the book said. If you don't believe it, you're just denying facts."
That's why I decided to pull together a commentary for NPR on the film, which I enjoyed tremendously. For political nerds like me, its almost like electoral porn, pulling back the curtain on one of the most puzzling and momentous decisions in recent electoral history.
But it's also a primer which helps in understanding today's election cycle, where a passionate-yet-divided GOP electorate has swung wildly between being seduced by charismatic conservative media figures like Palin and voting for the guy who looks like the best candidate in a conventionally political sense.
Here's my piece for NPR on it all:
What's already drawing the most attention: star Julianne Moore's uncanny transformation into Palin.
More than the exaggerated caricature Tina Fey presented on Saturday Night Live, Moore's note-perfect Palin is an ambitious, excited politician occasionally overwhelmed by her plunge into national politics who ultimately comes to believe she is greater than the campaign that recruited her.
"The first thing I did was hire a vocal coach," Moore told reporters in January. "We would sometimes have the computer there when I was doing the debates to be able to watch (footage) very precisely, beat by beat."
But what may anger Palin fans are the tougher moments.
After McCain's advisers choose her, they discover she doesn't know basic facts about world politics, including that the prime minister is the head of England's government or who attacked America on Sept. 11 (she thought it was Saddam Hussein instead of al-Qaida).
The film shows her shutting down emotionally and avoiding preparations for her legendarily disastrous interview with CBS News anchor Katie Couric. Later, Palin refuses to take direction from McCain's staffers, increasingly convinced their advice is flawed.
Critics have noted Palin named British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as her hero in a September 2008 interview with Fox News pundit Sean Hannity, suggesting she knew how England's government worked. (Strong said she was likely coached through the Hannity interview.)
Woody Harrelson is surprisingly magnetic as Schmidt, the clear-eyed strategist who suggests Palin as a "game changing" running mate for McCain, only to regret his choice. Ed Harris plays McCain as a wily politician with a habit of cursing and a taste for risky, unpredictable moves.
The film also uses news footage to portray other politicians, including Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton. Other clips are edited, Forrest Gump style, to place Moore and Harrelson in scenes with journalists such as CBS's Couric.
But the bigger question here is, why Palin?
News of her shortcomings made big headlines when the book Game Change was published, and her opponent made the bigger mark in history when America elected its first black president.
"There is an amazing movie to be made about the election of the first African-American president, but that movie needs to be made after he's out of office," Strong countered. "(Released) this year, it would come across as an infomercial for his re-election."
And while it seems odd that such a sprawling book — detailing the campaigns of Obama, McCain, Clinton and John Edwards — would become a film at all, co-author Mark Halperin says that was the plan from the beginning -- as the book's film rights were sold before a word was written.
In the end, Game Change may feel like a bit of piling on, a litany of embarrassing moments featuring a woman whose current political work mostly consists of appearances on Fox News.
But when a tired Schmidt calls the 2008 campaign "a bad reality show," there is the sense he could also be speaking of Rick Perry's "oops" moment or Michele Bachmann's insistence that the Founding Fathers fought slavery.
"When we put celebrity and charisma over substance, we put ourselves in a potentially dangerous situation," Strong said. "Before Iowa, (the GOP race) was a bunch of charismatic media figures. Fortunately, once the voting started, the charismatic media figures got voted off the island."