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HBO’s Game Change is non-partisan (and other uncomfortable realities) – Clacking with Julia

Did you watch 'Game Change' and wonder about if it was partisan or not? Because if so, you weren't asking the right questions.

In addition to being a hardcore TV addict, I am a political junkie with an admitted liberal/borderline socialist bias. (My nightly routine, for example, is The Daily Show at 11, followed by what I refer to as “date night with Rachel Maddow”, where I watch the stream of her show online. This routine is absolutely sacred and non-negotiable.) I am also sadly a TV addict without access to HBO, so it took me about a week to both track down a copy of Game Change and find time to actually watch it.

Between Meredith’s review and all the back-and-forth I’d heard about this movie, I’d fully expected to be a self-indulgent liberal wallow in Sarah Palin’s crazy with a healthy dose of “thank God we avoided that disaster, Obama 2012!” And I have to say, I watched it, and I vehemently disagree with anyone who has characterized it as such. I don’t know, maybe I watched a different version than everyone else did. Maybe going into it with the preconceived expectation I had made it so anything that didn’t fill that narrative seemed more shocking. Maybe I’m just weird. But I think the fact that people are even going into this movie going, “is it fair to Palin?” or “is it political?” are inherently going about watching this the wrong way. This movie isn’t about politics. In fact, for a political movie, it’s almost aggressively apolitical. The script never attaches value judgment to any political stances beyond discussing their relative popularity with the electorate. The only time any moralizing stance is ever taken is on the issue of race and even veiled race-baiting, which it comes down solidly against. (And if that’s a partisan or contentious issue that’s still up for debate in America, I’m quitting and moving to Antarctica to live with penguins.)

Let’s tell a story. Jack and Bob are two guys who are up for a big promotion. Jack’s been working really hard for years to get this, put in all the time, done all the work. Bob’s kind of a newcomer and totally under-qualified, but he’s got something Jack doesn’t: he’s just naturally awesome. He effortlessly does things in seconds that took Jack years to accomplish. And what’s more, Bob’s able to somehow bypass all the normal rules and do things that are totally out of the box and no one else can do, and he always makes it work. So it looks like Bob is going to get the job. But Jack doesn’t want to give up, because he’s devoted his life to getting this job. So to look like he, too, can make these intuitive, think outside the box decisions, Jack decides to hire as his number two go-to person not a logical choice, but a choice completely out of left field: Sally.

Now, it’s not that Sally is a bad person, but hiring Sally quickly proves to be a bad choice. She isn’t prepared to handle the stresses of the job (which isn’t a criticism so much as this job requires super-human stress management ability), and to make up for it and try to make her feel better, everyone around Sally coddles and over-praises her whenever she gets something right. Sally is good at picking stuff up quickly; she isn’t Bob-levels of good. And poor Sally quickly starts unraveling, which, who can blame her, people are swinging hot and cold on her like they’re a Katy Perry single, her home life is full of stress and keeps being dragged into her work life, and her work life keeps being dragged into her home life. She’s swimming in the deep end without a life preserver and feeling like there isn’t a single person she can trust, because she keeps getting yelled at by everyone to know things she had no idea she was supposed to know. Does she handle it gracefully? No. Can you blame her? No. But still, Jack’s decision to hire Sally, instead of masking the fact that he doesn’t have that savant edge that Bob has, only makes it clearer than ever that there are things Bob gets that Jack never can. And so Jack doesn’t get that promotion, and Bob does. The End.

In case my really transparent analogy wasn’t clear, this is the entire story of Game Change. And this is all the story is. The politics are as meaningless to the greater narrative as it would be if Jack and Sally were Wall Street executives discussing derivative markets or chicken farmers discussing what types of chickens lay the best eggs. Saying Game Change is unfair to Sarah Palin — or Sally — is kind of like saying “dude, it’s so uncool that they blame everything in Frankenstein on Frankenstein’s monster.” She is what they made her. Even Sarah Palin in reality is what the campaign made her. Lest we forget, Sarah Palin did cost John McCain the election (or at least, she certainly helped him lose by more). The Katie Couric interview was that bad. Sarah Palin was objectively unprepared for the role she was thrust into, no matter how much you agree with her politics. The easy, truly partisan way of explaining this would have been to just make her character crazy and willfully ignorant. They didn’t. Her character was savvy. Her character had motivations that made sense. Her character was sympathetic. I felt sympathetic to her. And, as we have previously established, I’m pretty sure the only thing Sarah Palin and I agree on is that the world is round and goes around the sun. Actually, I’m not sure we even agree on that. I have that little faith in her scientific base of knowledge. But as someone who has for four years been baffled by Palin’s existence, I’m kind of glad to finally have an explanation that makes sense. Accepting the idea that a person that gleefully unaware of the world around her and that oddly robotic in her parroting of rhetoric existing organically was always something I couldn’t make peace with, from a purely logical standpoint.

The other criticism I’ve heard of Game Change was that the timing was wrong. Why so close to the election? Why so soon after it happened? Do we really need it now? I’ll make answering this question simple for you: yes. We do. We need it now because America has extraordinary short-term memory loss. We need it because we need to look back at what Sarah Palin was saying back then that we all thought was so crazy right-wing and realize how far our political consciousness has shifted that now these ideas are considered mainstream Republican thought. (Even if you think this is a good thing. It’s still worth appreciating.) We need it because we need to be reminded of what it takes not only to be president, but what it takes to even get through a presidential campaign. We need to appreciate what the candidates we are about to vote on to lead our country are going through and doing that we aren’t getting to see. Americans, as a people, are not fond of admitting when we make mistakes. We like to gloss over them and speed ahead and pretend they never happened. Sarah Palin, no matter if you like her or dislike her, was a mistake. She burst into national politics before she was ready, and she died out as quickly as she came as a result. It doesn’t matter if you think that was a good thing or think that was a bad thing, it’s still what happened.

And we need it because, honestly, we’re even discussing the partisanship of this movie. This movie is dispassionate and clinical. It gives victorious moments and moments of defeat to every single character. It is even-handed. It is extraordinarily, fastidiously neutral. But it is a litmus test: are we, as Americans, incapable of discussing the objective events of the last time we elected the leader of our nation without it being a partisan issue? Because if the answer is “no”, which it seems to be proving to be, that’s something we have to start working on as soon as possible.

Photo Credit: HBO

2 Responses to “HBO’s Game Change is non-partisan (and other uncomfortable realities) – Clacking with Julia”

March 18, 2012 at 8:32 PM

The only thing Governor Sarah Palin did was beat Democrats and “Frick & Frack” Republicans, become Mayor, chair an energy commission, become Governor and run as Vice President, raise her family, not abort her child, share earnings responsibility with her Husband, start a small business, and stick by her pregnant daughter. I can see how she would be a bad example for the woman’s liberation movement, the establishment, Demoocrat & Republican, abortion for children without notifying parents and others who want us to buy oil from the Mddle East and hate Israel.

March 20, 2012 at 7:35 PM

I agreed with this review 100%. Apparently you and I saw the same film. You should also check out “Advise & Consent,” a 1962 film starring Henry Fonda ( It also deals with the vetting process and how easily it can be corrupted by personal ambition.

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