Game Change

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.

Comments

  1. #1 SLC
    March 11, 2012

    Not all the people who found Ms. Palin impressive were the stupid and the ignorant. David Heddle, professor of physics at Newport Un., and currently chairman of the math department (by the bye, how does Prof. Rosenhouse feel about a physicist being chairman of a math department?) at that school was greatly impressed by her early on, particularly with her acceptance speech.

  2. #2 NJ
    March 11, 2012

    OP:

    So the film is certainly not the hatchet job she so richly deserved and which would have been more historically accurate.

    Come on, Jason, don’t beat around the bush. Say what you mean! ;)

  3. #3 Bayesian Bouffant, FCD
    March 11, 2012

    a chance to see what would happen if a no-nonsense, non-Ivy League mother of five suddenly became a player in national politics.

    For some definition of “no-nonsense.”

  4. #5 Andrew Feinberg
    March 12, 2012

    Ed Harris as John McCain. Seriously? Wow. Did they cast Steve Buscemi as Obama?

  5. #6 Raging Bee
    March 12, 2012

    No thanks. I watched the original train wreck, so I have no need to watch a remake or reenactment.

    I only hope that having to play Sarah Palin doesn’t do any serius damage to Julianne Moore’s career.

  6. #7 MarkH
    March 12, 2012

    I actually don’t think that the typical Sarah Palin voter would be turned off by this portrayal. While I was watching it I realized that in a weird way, the more she was portrayed as being just a regular person that didn’t know all this fancy foreign policy the more her constituency would stick up for her. After all, they don’t go for all that fancy intellectualism and book learnin. The only thing that would be truly negative to them would be the scenes where it became apparent she was just too lazy or too disconnected to try and help the campaign. Otherwise I’m sure they saw this as a portrayal of a ordinary woman who was torn apart by those liberal media types like Tina Fey, and bullied by the old boys network in her own party.

    In the end, the people that like Palin might like her more for this film as they want to vote for someone that is “one of them”. So I think the Times review was right. Lot’s of voters don’t respect knowledge or intellect, they want some schmoe like them in power because they think that will somehow serve their interest. This portrayal is a huge turn-off to people like us because we tend to think our leaders should be exceptional, rather than ordinary, but then, it’s not like we were ever going to vote for her anyway. People like us don’t want someone “like us” in power. We want someone smarter, someone more qualified, someone who has a vast pool of knowledge to draw on. We vote for Clintons and Obamas, they vote for Palins and Bushes. McCain was an exception as he, whatever his faults, actually has experience in government and knowledge about the world. Granted, for some reason he wants to bomb the hell out of every country in the middle east, but he at least knows where the middle east is.

  7. #8 Valhar2000
    March 12, 2012

    SLC: I noticed that. I also noticed that Heddle was unable to defend her: all his defenses of Palin consisted of critizing Biden (though his criticisms of Biden were usually good).

    I always wondered what he could possibly see in Palin, and, well, he never actually told us. I suspect he didn’t really know.

  8. #9 Blaine
    March 12, 2012

    Jason,

    On the vetting issue, yes they did not do proper due diligence, but I really think that in their haste they made a bad assumption. They assumed that someone who graduated from college and was the governor of a state, had a basic level of knowledge which included a grasp of history, geography and current events. They discovered to their horror, that she didn’t even have a sixth grade level of knowledge.

  9. #10 cfrost
    March 13, 2012

    It seems to me that one could start the vetting process by taking the prospective candidate out for a long dinner. In Palin’s case her bottomless ignorance should be as obvious as the colors on a mandrill’s ass before the appetizers are done.

  10. #11 Bayesian Bouffant, FCD
    March 13, 2012

    Charlie Pierce:

    When John Heilemann, and the utterly inexcusable Mark Halperin, published Game Change, their gossipy account of the campaign four years ago, almost every page fairly dripped with flop sweat. Not from the authors, but from the dozens of professional political types, anonymous and not, who saw in the book a chance to rehabilitate their own reputations from the fools, thieves, and mountebanks for whom they’d worked. (And who, it should never be forgotten, they spent two years trying to foist on the rest of us as national leaders.)

  11. #12 SLC
    March 13, 2012

    Re Valhar2000 @ #8

    As I recall, Prof. Heddle specifically stated that he was impressed with her acceptance speech.

  12. #13 Ryan
    March 13, 2012

    Insofar as she comes off looking bad, I think she looks very human. Not human like I and many others may be, but still human.

    I may be able to read through a couple hundred note cards and learn my shit in a few days, especially when it comes to history and politics, but a lot of people *can’t*, especially people so disinterested in the subject matter that they’ve eschewed it their entire lives.

    So that felt very accurate to me.

    I also can easily conceive how someone could be so selfish as Sarah Palin was throughout that campaign — turning it into the Sarah Palin show — and simultaneously think she’s actually doing it entirely for John McCain.

    That’s cognitive dissonance. She simply couldn’t — and can’t — admit her selfishness is primarily motivated by, well, selfishness. I’m sure she still thinks Sarah Palin is all about ‘the cause,’ whatever that cause may be, when in reality she’s all about Sarah Palin and always will be.

    It shouldn’t surprise anyone that there are people like this out there — a lot of them, in fact. What may surprise a lot of us is that someone like Sarah Palin could get as far as she did, knowing as little as she did.

    It’s like Reese Ritherspoon’s character in legally blonde, waking up one day and deciding to become a lawyer, if her character was also a legal dolt. Sarah Palin woke up one day and decided to become a politician, but she didn’t actually want to do any of the work required to be a politician… including learning things.

    I suppose we shouldn’t be shocked that in the trophy kid generation, a mother with a trophy-mom attitude would be as blind to her own shortcomings and somehow think whenever those shortcomings unearthed their ugly head, it was somehow the media’s fault. She deserved that trophy because, well, everyone gets one!

    Mind you, the fact that the ‘trophy’ she wanted was to be one-heart-beat away from being the next President probably didn’t register with her. She simply thought she deserved it, because she was running for it.

    Her rationalization in that capacity only fed the beast and further inflated her ego, making her feel so important that she thought, when questioned by others, they were trying to take her down, instead of, say, asking her what her favorite newspapers and magazines to get a worldview.

    Insofar as the movie seemed to get this about Palin, I think the movie was kind. Her problems had as much to do with her own selfishness and pettiness as it did her pathology. In that regard, it cast her as human and there can be no kinder portrayal for someone as prominent and simultaneously lacking as Sarah Palin.

    PS. I think there are two motivations with the movie, beyond entertainment. The first comes from HBO: They wanted a fairly accurate, honest and human portrayal of Sarah Palin — and clearly succeeded there.

    The second motivation is clear from the people who wrote the source material: McCain’s lackeys.

    They wanted a project that could help resurrect John McCain’s legacy (and their own), so presented him as a guy who was really behind in the polls and had only moments to choose a ‘game changer’ of a VP, as if he had no choice in the matter. (Of course, in real life, he could have simply delayed his announcement and actually vetted her for another week.)

    Then, they presented him as unreasonably patient, kind and understanding, like an elder father would be to a middle-aged daughter who was never able to quite get it together. Given how snappy and rude he’s known to be, especially reports of his behavior behind closed doors (never mind what leaks out in public), that seems very unrealistic.

    There’s no way he wasn’t ripshit at Palin, but there just wasn’t anything he could do about it, but hope to ride the storm out and not lose by 30.

    So, was the second motivation a success? Maybe for some people, but I don’t know if the American people are that gullible, and I don’t know if they give enough of a damn about John McCain to give a damn anyway.

    Moreover, I don’t think HBO cares. They got what they wanted out of it… a surefire beast at the Emmy’s, a property they can actually sell in the form of DVDs, on itunes and the like, and most importantly of all.. subscribers galore.

    And they got it all without having to deal with the flack of having the media go after them about ‘mistreating’ Sarah Palin, because their potrayal of her was nothing but honest, accurate and human.

  13. #14 Chris Winter
    March 14, 2012

    And the hits just keep on comin’ —

    Slide 1 from SarahPAC is captioned:

    “Fight back against HBO and their liberal fiction ‘Game Change’ by donating to SarahPAC today!”

    It’s important to remember that while Sarah Palin will not run again for office herself, she continues to funnel money to conservative candidates.

    Meanwhile, Richard Cohen weighs in on the film and its subject in a Washington Post Op-ed: “At some point while watching HBO’s absolutely smashing (and terrifying) movie “Game Change,” it occurred to me that Sarah Palin has ruined America.”

    Perusing the 4,899 comments on that op-ed would be interesting, as long as you have your head vise firmly in place.

  14. #15 Area Man
    March 16, 2012

    “She is presented as paranoid, arrogant and selfish, blaming everyone but herself for her failures.”

    In other words, a conservative Republican.