News & Politics

A Sympathetic Portrayal of Sarah Palin in HBO’s “Game Change”

Julianne Moore gives human dimension to Palin in the film based on the bestselling political book.

Ed Harris as John McCain and Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin in Game Change. Photograph courtesy of HBO.

Loyalists from the Sarah Palin camp, including current and former aides, have complained about the upcoming HBO film Game Change, because they say it is not an accurate or flattering portrayal of the former GOP vice presidential candidate. Reportedly not one has seen the film. I have, and I think they should see it before commenting further. In the capable hands of Julianne Moore, Palin becomes more than the caricature often painted of her; she is given flesh and bone dimension. Whether it’s flattering is not the issue, really, but it is sympathetic in the context of an altogether engaging political film about a landmark race for the White House.

It should be noted early that for fans of the John Heilemann and Mark Halperin bestseller about the 2008 presidential race, this is not that Game Change. In fact, this film could be called, or at least subtitled, The Sarah Palin Story. It is the campaign through the arc of the Alaska governor’s selection, seemingly out of nowhere, as the running mate for John McCain, through to the end of the race and their loss to Barack Obama and Joe Biden. The film has no Hillary or Bill Clinton, for example, and no Democrats really, except for Obama in news footage. Moore is onscreen for most of the two-hour film, which debuts on HBO Saturday, March 10.

At first it’s tough to watch Moore and not think of Tina Fey’s hilarious and biting impression of Palin on Saturday Night Live. But as the story and performance move along and deepen, Moore brings new emotions to her character: eagerness, grit, doubt, frustration, loneliness, depression, resolve, and intransigence. The stubbornness comes at the end, when she feels she has to salvage herself from the emerging wreckage of the “Straight Talk Express.”

Not all of this is in the book. Screenwriter Danny Strong did a lot of his own research, conducting his own interviews with the players before writing the script. That’s where the film departs from the conventional one-dimensional view of Palin, that’s where it takes us behind the scenes, beginning with a world-weary McCain (Ed Harris), frustrated with the enormity that is Obama. Reminiscent of the dilemma now facing moderate GOP candidate Mitt Romney, McCain worries about how to convince the base he is conservative “enough.” He and his top aides, Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson) and Rick Davis (Peter MacNicol), agree: “We need a game-changing pick.”

When Palin is put forth, McCain is doubtful and prescient. Is she too outside the box? Davis assures him. “This is a woman with a gun, John. The base is going to be doing backflips.”

Moore shines as the campaign begins in earnest, capturing Palin, plucked from near-obscurity in Alaska, not versed on much more than state politics, wide-eyed and eager to help McCain and the party, saying many times, “I just don’t want to let John down.” But she’s made to feel that she is constantly letting him down. She is surrounded by men most of the time, telling her what to do—with the exception of one woman, her campaign-appointed chief of staff, Nicolle Wallace, with whom she has an epic dysfunctional relationship. Schmidt and Davis inundate her with briefs and drills, struggling to remake her into a seasoned pro. The tension of the film rides on this, and on the mounting disconnect between the McCain camp and the struggling candidate. Palin’s anger and dismay are appealing. “I’m trying to trust you people, but you’re making it hard for me,” she says.

There’s no point in detailing the story, because viewers drawn to this film will probably be versed in the who, what, and when—though, again, Strong and director Jay Roach bring the same quality of freshness to this much-reported political story that they did to an earlier HBO project, Recount, which focused on the debacle of the 2000 contest between Al Gore and George W. Bush.

Near the end of the film comes a scene set on election night, during a tense moment. Schmidt McCain tells his “rogue” running mate: “You’re one of the leaders of the party now, Sarah. Don’t get co-opted by Limbaugh and other extremists. They’ll destroy the party if you let them. Remember, you’re a hockey mom who just wanted to make a difference—and you did.”

The words were prophetic. So far, the GOP is still intact and Palin has found success as an ex-governor, author, reality TV star, public speaker, and Fox political analyst. She hasn’t gone away, and let’s hope she goes public with whether this very human portrayal is far-fetched or accurate.

This article has been updated from a previous version. We apologize for any confusion.