Thursday, February 28, 2013

Short Take: Game Change

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Films about politics are invariably propaganda, and Game Change is no exception. The film, adapted from John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s lurid, misogynist history of the 2008 presidential campaign, focuses on only a small part of the book's narrative: the vice-presidential candidacy of Sarah Palin (Julianne Moore). The film begins with John McCain (Ed Harris) hiring Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson) as his top campaign strategist. This is followed by a montage presenting McCain’s ascendancy to the Republican presidential nomination. But after that, it’s the Sarah Palin story all the way. Or more specifically, it’s an attack on Palin dressed up as a cautionary tale about “the dark side to American populism.” As hatchet jobs go, it’s shallow, mediocre, and not the least bit clever. It does little more than tell people who love to hate Palin what they want to hear about her. The only side of her the film presents with conviction is the narcissistic, intellectually lazy demagogue. The filmmakers acknowledge her phenomenal talent for retail campaigning and her rapport with rural and working–class people, but their understanding of her appeal never goes beyond the superficial. As such, they can’t dramatize her charisma with any effectiveness. The portrait the film paints is just as much a caricature as the lampoons Tina Fey did of Palin on Saturday Night Live. The major difference is that it isn’t the least bit witty, much less funny. The picture is mainly just a series of Palin’s major campaign moments, punctuated with scenes featuring Schmidt, McCain, and campaign advisor Nicolle Wallace (Sarah Paulson) wringing their hands over what they’ve inflicted on the American people. As Palin, Julianne Moore gives the role, in both good and bad ways, the Meryl Streep treatment. The attention to surface detail is extraordinary, but her timing is off. It comes across as a lack of spontaneity, and she seems like a programmed android. (There’s also a repeated, weirdly discordant aspect to Moore's performance that may or may not be intentional: whenever she smiles, she looks as if she’s ready to rip someone apart with her teeth.) The scenes that ostensibly treat Palin sympathetically, such as those between her and her family, are undone by the calculated feel of Moore’s performance. Her warmth doesn’t feel genuine, and one cannot help but wonder if that’s the effect the filmmakers were after. Woody Harrelson, Sarah Paulson, and to a lesser degree Ed Harris are allowed to suggest their real-life counterparts rather than mimic them, and they come across much more as flesh-and-blood people. The contrast seems deliberate. The less Palin is recognizable as a human being, the easier it is to belittle her. The best that can be said for Jay Roach’s direction is that the narrative is clear and well paced. The script is credited to Danny Strong.

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