Portraying Palin: HBO’s ‘Game Change’ Stirs Up Controversy

That's the ticket! Ed Harris as John McCain and Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin in "Game Change" (Photo: HBO)

Let’s try and set the record straight on this HBO Sarah Palin movie called “Game Change,” which you’ve no doubt been reading about lately.

TV critics are hailing the movie, in which Julianne Moore plays Palin, in much the same way that they reacted to a previous HBO movie about another presidential campaign — the 2008 made-for-TV movie called “Recount” about the Bush-Gore Florida debacle of 2000. Both movies were written by Danny Strong and directed by Jay Roach. Then, as now, the critics are enthusiastic about “Game Change” and, in particular, Moore’s performance.

Of course, any TV movie that purports to portray Sarah Palin will come to TV laden with controversy. And that rule of thumb certainly applies to "Game Change," which premieres on HBO on Saturday night (March 10) at 9/8c.

As with any TV dramatization adapted from real events (or, as in this case, a non-fiction book about real events), your enjoyment of “Game Change” might depend on whether or not you accept its portrayal of Sarah Palin. And this movie’s depiction of Palin is downright brutal.

It’s the Sarah Palin of summer and fall 2008, when she skyrocketed to instant fame as John McCain’s surprise pick to join his ticket as the Republican candidate for vice president. The movie focuses primarily on three characters — McCain (played by Ed Harris), Palin and McCain campaign advisor Steve Schmidt (played by Woody Harrelson with his usual intensity).

Watch the cast members talk about “Game Change” here:
[iframe http://xfinitytv.comcast.net/movies/Game-Change/218352/2204389344/-Game-Change%3A-Cast-Interviews–%28HBO%29/embed 580 476]

In the movie, which I watched the other day on a preview DVD provided by HBO, Harris puts his own usual intensity away to portray McCain as an F-word spewing candidate who seems to prefer that his staff do most of the heavy lifting in the management of his own presidential campaign.

Harris doesn’t really try for out-and-out mimickry in his portrayal of McCain, but that wasn’t the case with Moore. She nails Palin in all the crucial areas — her voice, her body language, her hair, makeup and wardrobe. Moore’s portrayal of Palin is the great performance of this movie, and the primary reason to watch it in the first place. She’s almost certain to be nominated for an Emmy and she’ll probably win it.

Having said all that, the portrayal is savage. This movie posits that Palin the candidate was an uneducated, inarticulate, head-strong egomaniac who knew next to nothing about history, geography, international relations or domestic affairs. Moreover, according to the movie, when the pressures of running for national office mounted, she caved emotionally. Basically, the movie depicts Palin as a blithering idiot who couldn’t take the heat.

Is the portrayal true? Well, it is based on a book — “Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime” by journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin — and it’s the kind of book you assume is factual.

The book was about the Democratic and Republican campaigns that ended with Barack Obama’s victory — and all the people involved in the many dramas that took place that year. And yet, the movie focuses only on the Palin/McCain drama.

One of the executive producers of the movie explains in this clip why that decision was made:
[iframe http://xfinitytv.comcast.net/movies/Game-Change/218352/2204390436/-Game-Change%3A-The-Authors–%28HBO%29/embed 580 476]

Sarah Palin herself has said recently that she hasn’t seen the movie and doesn’t plan on watching it (though I expect she won’t be able to resist giving it at least a wee peek Saturday night, assuming she subscribes to HBO).

On the subject of “Game Change,” the book, I unearthed a fascinating clip of Palin defending herself from some of the same accusations leveled in the movie about her intelligence, her knowledge of foreign hotspots such as Iraq and Korea, and her attention span during the 2008 campaign. This clip was from January 2010, when Palin appeared with Bill O’Reilly on “The O’Reilly Factor” on Fox News Channel to rebut a “60 Minutes” report that had just aired. The “60 Minutes” segment had Anderson Cooper interviewing the “Game Change” authors and the real Steve Schmidt.

Watch what Sarah Palin had to say then about “Game Change” here:
[iframe http://xfinitytv.comcast.net/tv/The-O-Reilly-Factor/2924/1384542301/Sarah-Palin-Fascination/embed 580 476]

Love it or hate it, this movie is too fascinating to dismiss. "Game Change" premieres on HBO on Saturday night (March 10) at 9/8c.

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The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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