I watched HBO’s film Game Change tonight, about the rise and fall of Sarah Palin in the 2008 presidential race. It was pretty good! Which is to say that it makes Palin look pretty bad.
As presented in the film, Palin is not merely uninterested in filling the gaps in her understanding of domestic and foreign policy, but is actually incapable of learning anything even when she tries. Her decent performance in the debate with Joe Biden is presented, quite correctly, as the result of pure cynicism. When her prep team realizes that it is simply impossible to bring her up to speed on the issues likely to arise in the debate, they teach her instead to recite a few lines and to pivot any time things stray into deep waters. She is presented as paranoid, arrogant and selfish, blaming everyone but herself for her failures. After the Biden debate she decides that she is the centerpiece of the campaign, to the point of even wanting to give a concession speech when McCain ultimately loses the election. She is presented as a religious fanatic who sees her candidacy as divinely ordained. In short, it’s hard to imagine how she could have come off looking worse.
For example, in one scene we see two foreign policy experts being brought in to coach Palin.
They begin talking about the subtle geopolitical issues they intend to discuss with her. Campaign officials shuffle around, clearly embarrassed, and explain that they may have to start with simpler fare. The film then cuts to a scene of the experts, now with Palin, pointing out the location of Germany on a map.
Get the idea?
There is an odd scene early on where Palin is asked by Steve Schmidt, McCain’s chief strategist, whether she accepts the theory of evolution. She replies that she does, but that she also sees the hand of God when she considers nature. That was precisely the reply given by McCain in one of the Republican debates that year. (More precisely, he initially said forthrightly that he accepted evolution. Then, when he realized that answer could get him into trouble with the base, he added, as an afterthought, that he saw the hand of God in a beautiful sunset.) But that is not Palin’s view on evolution.
In it’s own review of the film, the L. A. Times comes to a different conclusion:
But the overall atmosphere of the film is surprisingly kind to all, much more fatalistic than hypercritical and certainly not derisive. Palin’s rise and fall is depicted as series of bad decisions made in relatively good faith that lead up to a hideous car crash.
They saw a different film . The film I saw presented Palin’s rise as the result of a cynical campaign so desperate for a politically savvy choice that they didn’t care about doing any serious vetting, and her fall as being entirely the result of her own considerable failings.
Here’s another place where I disagree with the Times review:
There is a truly heartbreaking moment in “Game Change,” the HBO film about Sarah Palin’s run for vice president. It comes after Palin (Julianne Moore) has made her galvanizing speech at the Republican National Convention accepting the nomination as John McCain’s (Ed Harris) running mate and is drawing jaw-dropping crowds to her meet and greets. Footage is shown of the people waiting hours to meet her, including one rather large and nondescript woman who looks straight at the camera and says: “I have five kids. She’s talking to me, and no one ever talks to me.”
Never mind the lessons that current political candidates might learn from this moment; here it serves as a powerful and necessary reminder of what Palin represented in the early days following McCain’s decision. For many Americans, and not all of them McCain supporters or even Republicans, Sarah Palin provided, if only briefly, an unexpected vision of hope, a chance to see what would happen if a no-nonsense, non-Ivy League mother of five suddenly became a player in national politics.
Perhaps I’m just overly cynical, but that scene didn’t strike me as heartbreaking at all. It comes right after Palin is shown speaking in substance-free soundbites at the convention and at her public speeches. They then cut to a handful of voters being impressed by her sincerity. To me it seemed the film was simply mocking the sorts of people who found Palin appealing. Throughout, all of the intelligent, knowledgeable characters are simply horrified by the thought that she could be a heartbeat away from the Presidency.
McCain is presented as a saint, which is annoying since it is plainly absurd given everything we now know about the 2008 campaign. And while Palin is presented as deeply ignorant and emotionally unstable, she is also presented as basically decent and fiercely devoted to her family. So the film is certainly not the hatchet job she so richly deserved and which would have been more historically accurate. But for all of that no one watching the film could possibly come away thinking very positively of Palin. It’s worth watching if you have the opportunity.