Politics. Sigh. They just never get better, do they? As Rush Limbaugh hurls outrageously unacceptable slurs against a girl he’s never met just for standing up for her beliefs, the left continues to bemoan conservative Congress members blocking Obama’s plans at every turn. The glimmer of hope of a population of citizenry that actually cares about its politics with the Occupy movement has become yesterday’s news while the current election cycle is turning into as big a circus as the last one.
And in case I didn’t remember well enough, HBO’s Game Change quickly reminded me how fast politics can become decidedly unpolitical.
Full disclosure: I am a liberal who generally sides with the Democrats, though I pride myself on what I hope is a certain level of open-mindedness when it comes to partisanship. Really, I think bi-partisan politics are about as ineffective as politics get, though I am no Political Science major and will therefore move away from politics and into popular culture.
Game Change is fascinating to look at, not just because of its presentation of an event and a group of people still very much in the public memory, but because of the hoopla that has led up to it. Conservatives have bashed it as unfair and full of lies while liberals have asserted its even-handedness, as both sides are wont to do in situations like these. Never mind that most of these statements leading up to the film’s premiere on Saturday night came from people who had not seen the movie yet.
As a piece of film and/or television, Game Change was excellent. Julianne Moore was unstoppable as Sarah Palin while Ed Harris captured McCain’s demeanor eerily well. Woody Harrelson was fiery as campaign strategist Steve Schmidt while Sarah Paulson made a powerful impression in only a few scenes as communications adviser Nicolle Wallace. This was HBO at its finest — top-notch writing, an undeniably compelling story and a perfect package of cinematic excellence. Expect Game Change to clean up at the upcoming year’s major awards.
But one cannot discuss the quality of Game Change without delving into politics. The 2008 election was the first presidential election I was eligible to vote in and was a period of history I will not easily forget. It was during this election when I knew for sure that the media had probably ruined politics. Hillary Clinton didn’t have a chance when news outlets decided to paint her as a shrew while Oprah’s backing of Obama and his star charisma guaranteed him the party nomination. Meanwhile, the Republican race was about as dull as a group of old white dudes sitting around talking about nothing. Well…
Obama was the talk of the town and it was only after bringing in a new star — Sarah Palin — that McCain even stood a chance. This is what Game Change handles really well — capturing that atmosphere of desperation within the campaign trying to get an old American hero elected when the people were dying for something new.
Game Change is at its most biting when it becomes painfully clear how this election, at least from the McCain-Palin side, wasn’t about good politics, but was about good TV. Steve Schmidt discusses the 48-Hour News Cycle with Palin, describing it as pure entertainment, and though this saying has become increasingly cliché, it holds powerfully true in this instance of politics gone awry.
Sarah Palin can complain all she wants about the story being a tall tale, but she is rarely the subject of the film’s attack. I’m not trying to say that Game Change in any way tries to pretend that she was actually political genius — the scenes in which it becomes obvious to the campaign staff that she doesn’t necessarily know a ton about politics are actually difficult to watch. The film also exploits that awful Katie Couric interview and Tina Fey’s Saturday Night Live impression for great comedic affect. However, Sarah Palin ultimately comes off as a strong-if-unprepared female politician, able to rally a nation because of her genuine personality, not because of her knowledge of geography. She is a doting mother who clearly would have been better off if allowed to keep her family near her and most of her campaign gaffes ultimately fall on the shoulders of her advisers.
So desperately in search of a spark for the McCain campaign, those very advisers let the ball drop so far that they brought a terribly unprepared politician in to fill the position of Vice President. And that was a huge mistake. Palin was clearly not prepared for that role, but Game Change makes it clear that that was the campaign’s fault, not hers.
In fact, there are several instances, particularly during her “Going Rogue” period, when even this liberal had to admit that she was pretty compelling to watch capture (part of) the nation’s heart.
McCain, too, comes off in a sympathetic light. While McCain himself complained that Game Change has him using far too much profanity, he is presented as an unbelievably even-handed politician, far more concerned about helping the country than about attacking the left or pleasing the right. Ultimately, he has to succumb to dirty bi-partisan politics to stand a chance, but it is obvious as he does so that he hates it. It reminds me of the “maverick,” moderate McCain I respected before that election.
The media and, most of all, politics and campaigning that pander to said media, are really the targets of this film. Steve Schmidt isn’t himself a villain, but one is absolutely left with the sense that the actions of the McCain campaign left an indelibly poor mark on the way American politics handles campaigning.
I don’t think it would be fair of me, though, to try to convince you that Game Change is actually even-handed and mostly fair to its subjects, particularly Palin and McCain — the liberals reading this might believe me, but the conservatives almost certainly would not.
If I leave you with anything, it is an urging to go and watch HBO’s Game Change for yourself. It’s a remarkable film about a piece of our recent political history that has clear, lasting effects and should neither be forgotten nor taken lightly. It’s good entertainment, but it’s also important entertainment.
And Julianne Moore kills it as Palin.
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