Did Governor Sarah Palin’s exciting yet gaffe-ridden vice presidential candidacy ultimately torpedo U.S. Senator John McCain’s 2008 presidential bid? Was she a disaster of an unprepared, ill-informed, silly candidate who offered Saturday Night Live’s scribes a wondrously, irresistible target to spoof? Or was her selection a massive miscalculation on the part of McCain campaign staffers who were so hell bent on shaking up the race to compete against the booming popularity of U.S. Senator Barack Obama that they didn’t sufficiently vet Palin and failed to sufficiently prepare her for the rigors of the campaign?
The answer to those questions likely hinges on to which side of the political spectrum you find yourself comfortable. Yet the HBO film Game Change — based on a portion of the bestselling book of the same name which chronicled the entire 2008 presidential campaign — seems to want it both ways. It wants to seem neutral, like it’s not really skewering Palin as it points out the failures of the McCain team by settling on the Alaska governor as a last-minute stunt without first thoroughly researching her, yet it also condescendingly paints Palin as a hormonal, mentally and emotionally unstable, at times catatonic woman who should’ve never been nominated in the first place because, you know, she just had a baby and all.
If you’re a Democrat and/or Palin foe, this film will only solidify your preconceived notions about her (based on reports campaign sources gave to the Game Change authors). She was in over her head, the movie says. Can you believe that she didn’t know why there is a North and South Korea or why our troops were fighting in Afghanistan (as her eldest son was being shipped off to serve in Iraq), the movie asks viewers.
However if you’re a Republican and/or Palin fan, there are a few positive moments — vastly overshadowed by the negative ones — like when Palin delivered knock-out performances at the GOP convention and at her debate against U.S. Senator Joe Biden, as well as the way in which she deeply and personally connected with the voters she met on the rope lines, sparked a surge in campaign donations to the McCain campaign and drew huge, enthusiastic crowds to campaign rallies.
But the haunting scenes of Palin curled up in a ball on a hotel room floor surrounded by index cards upon which she has written facts like who fought alongside the Americans during World War II, of Palin wrapping her arms around herself during debate prep while mumbling that she missed her baby, her prolonged semi-catatonic state and her lack of basic knowledge about the federal government are the scenes that stick with you, fair or not, creating a portrait of Palin that’s at once sympathetic and pathetic. It’s not a portrait that has the ring of fairness to it considering the woman was a successful and popular governor who was plunged into a national campaign, with its expectations of foreign policy knowledge, with no notice.
That being said, Julianne Moore, who played Palin, was astonishing and seemed to genuinely appreciate the multi-faceted emotions with which Palin was dealing during the tumultuous few months. I expect Moore to clean up at the Emmy and Golden Globes for her spot-on depiction of Palin where she seamlessly climbed into Palin’s skin the way Meryl Streep inhabited Margaret Thatcher’s in The Iron Lady. The look on Moore’s/Palin’s face as she watched Tina Fey mock her on SNL, as Palin’s pregnant teen dissolved into tears as she was lampooned on television, online and in newspapers from coast to coast was indeed moving.
Woody Harrelson was likewise fantastic as the pivotal McCain aide Steve Schmidt who championed Palin’s candidacy as the “game changer” to counter Obama’s growing iconic status. Palin was described by Harrelson’s Schmidt as a “high risk, high reward” pick who the male McCain staffers thought was a wildly charismatic choice, an exciting departure from the regular, same old, same old cast of male candidates.
It was through Harrelson’s character that the writers attempted to make their main point: That politicians are now expected to be entertainers who can act and deliver their lines on television, regardless of whether they actually know what the heck they’re talking about. The media, he asserted, only want to play along for the sake of ratings and creating a dramatic election. “News is no longer meant to be remembered,” Harrelson/Schmidt said. “… [I]t’s entertainment.”
But it’s impossible to ignore the conclusion the writers reached — after Palin tried to assert her power and finagle time to give her own concession speech after Obama won — when Schmidt was later interviewed about the campaign. For all of McCain’s strategic mistakes along the way — Ed Harris‘ McCain seemed like a mere supporting cast member — Palin’s nomination was considered to be a grave error and therefore she seemed to be allotted the lion’s share of the blame for McCain’s loss. Was it really her fault? Or was the loss due to an overall accumulation of McCain’s actions? Or his staffers? The answers that Game Change offers don’t tilt in Palin’s favor.