Regardless of one’s political orientation, I think it wise to cautiously approach movies that explicitly focus on a political figure. To treat with a grain of salt the things you hear and see in these movies, even if they are supposedly based on actual events, is a good start. There, that was my preface for the review of Game Change (2012) based on the nonfiction book of the same name written by Heilemann and Halperin.
Game Change was produced by and aired on HBO. Although the book spends more time on the other players in the 2008 campaign, the movie primarily focuses on the decision by the McCain campaign to select Sarah Palin as McCain’s running mate.
What struck me first, considering that Hollywood is solidly on the left of the political spectrum, is that the movie gives McCain and those in his inner circle a very fair shake considering the recklessness of their decision. McCain is portrayed as a very amicable man, one who early on recognizes that Palin wasn’t the best choice and a man who does his best to make her feel comfortable in the national media spotlight and on the campaign trail. From what I read in 2008 and since then, this portrayal of McCain and his team seems accurate. There were clearly some people who were skeptical of the Palin pick for several reasons. One, she was essentially a small-town politician, drastically unprepared for the demands of a national campaign. Two, the typical vetting process for a VP pick is 4-8 weeks. In order to pick Palin, she had to be vetted in 4-5 days, increasing the chances that after the selection something harmful about Palin would be unearthed and irreparably damage McCain’s chances. And three, when compared to other VP choices (Pawlenty and Lieberman) Palin did not have the national recognition that could instantly garner new support and subsequent donations.
When Palin was brought on board things soured very quickly. (Also accurate to what I have read.) The movie portrayed this very well, showing concern on the faces of aides one moment and then showing them high-fiving each other in the aftermath of Palin’s RNC speech and her debate against Joe Biden. Despite the fact that Palin memorized her debate answers, line by line, McCain’s campaign rejoiced because the debate was not the disaster of epic proportions that they fully and rightly expected. However, other than these two highlights, Palin proved to be power-hungry, ignorant, narcissistic, and amazingly childish at every opportunity. I had read that at one point Palin listed Africa as a country. This particular hiccup wasn’t in the movie, but other infamous ones were, like her inability to distinguish the reasons behind the Iraq War and the War in Afghanistan or her foreign policy advisors having to explain to her who the Axis powers were in WWII. Needless to say, the McCain staff quickly realized the gravity of the situation and either gave up completely or pushed on, leading to the ridiculous step taken to prevent a disaster in the VP debate, have Palin memorize 25 responses.
What I didn’t expect to feel during the movie was sorry for Palin, but I did. She was so obviously out of her league, despite her amazing acting ability and last minute heroics on a few occasions. At one point, Steve Schmidt, McCain’s top advisor (played by Woody Harrelson) turns to Palin and says, “You seem completely un-phased by all of this.” Palin (played flawlessly by Julianne Moore) turns to Schmidt, pauses, and says, “It’s God’s plan.” I do not know the accuracy of this specific conversation, but it perfectly sums up Palin’s attitude, as if she deserved the nomination, as if she was expecting it. It is deeply disturbing. So, on one hand, I feel sorry for Palin that she was way out of her element, but on the other hand, she did this to herself by embracing radical delusions of grandeur.
The movie very accurately portrays Palin as the element behind the radicalization of McCain’s campaign and of his supporters. It was Palin’s idea to bring up William Ayers and casually suggest that Obama liked to pal around with terrorists. McCain, having went through one of the low-points in American politics during the 2000 Republican primary contest against Bush, in which McCain was accused of fathering a black child out of wedlock when in actuality the McCains adopted their daughter from Bangladesh, strongly resisted dirty attacks from the campaign on Obama’s connection with Ayers and Rev. Wright. Eventually, McCain conceded, letting Palin loose on Ayers and from that point on in the campaign we really did see the nutters come out of the woodwork. They were drawn to Palin because she showed them that someone with her viewpoint could once again make it in America. She made the far, far right feel like they had a chance.
The video below is from a McCain rally. During this rally, McCain had to confront some of these nutters who were clearly energized by Palin’s ridiculous accusations and racist undertones. It was certainly a low point in the 2008 campaign and McCain had to address childish statements from adults. It was embarrassing for his campaign at the time, but he handled the situation gracefully.
Although Palin has largely disappeared from daily headlines, I think the radicalization of the right is still partially fueled by her brief time in the national spotlight. I think Game Change subtly suggests that Palin is one of a few select people responsible for this. I will get a bit repetitive here, but I did think that the movie was very fair to McCain and his campaign. Choosing Palin was a huge unforced error of the 2008 campaign, one that scared me and angered me, but now, in hindsight, one that I can sit back and laugh about.