Before I checked out "Game Change," HBO's Sarah Palin-focused retelling of the 2008 presidential election, I handed my screener over to a politically obsessed MTV News colleague. The next morning, he popped into my office and declared, "It was well-acted!" — which seemed like an odd way to lead off the conversation.
I expected him to burst through my door, laughing about what a kook Palin is, or wondering why producers didn't get Tina Fey to play the one-time vice presidential nominee, or waxing poetic about the "hopey, changey" circus that was Barack Obama's romp through the general election. But, no: well-acted.
When I stretched out on the couch for my own viewing a few days later, I finally grasped what my coworker was getting at: The performances in "Game Change" are what separate the film from fluffy caricature or partisan hackery into a compelling, if debatably accurate, piece of current event-tinged pop culture.
Julianne Moore manages to present a Palin that transcends mimicry and leaves a viewer (or, at least, this viewer) vacillating between sympathy and exasperation. As chief John McCain campaign advisor Steve Schmidt, Woody Harrelson simply kicks ass, doling out sage advice and f-bomb-heavy attacks with equal aplomb — exactly how I imagine political insiders do it in real life (or, perhaps, just on "The West Wing").
Of the major players, only Ed Harris' portrayal of McCain himself comes off as a little too much of an "SNL" imitation, his robotic physicality less reminiscent of the Arizona senator than of C-3PO. Nonetheless, all this combines to make "Game Change," in the best tradition of historical dramas, a tense affair as you sit waiting to find out how it all will end, even as you know exactly what in fact transpired.
That's not to say this film is high art, or even particularly great: It's not, and it isn't. Problems abound — from hokey, no-one-honestly-utters-such-patriotic-nonsense dialogue to the enduring question about veracity — but in the end, "Game Change" is gripping throughout, because it's "well-acted." Many reviewers agree with that sentiment — though not all. Here's what critics are saying about the HBO film, which premieres at 9 p.m. Saturday:
"McCain comes off close to saintly, with Harris lending him a grave bafflement over Obama's success. ... Harrelson portrays Schmidt as a man who truly believes that all McCain needs to push him to victory is a little sizzle. ... The film, obviously, belongs to Moore, who works hard to make Palin not so much fatally ambitious as one of those naturally confident people who believe that confidence and faith are the most important ingredients of success; ability or even competence can be learned on the job." — Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times
The Spin From the Right
"Moore portrays Palin as a Manchurian Candidate for the extreme right who is activated by a phone call from the McCain campaign. Like a hypnotized spy, she's humorless, incapable of any kind of emotional connection with anyone, bewildered by circumstance and absolutely determined to meet the goal she's been programmed to complete. ... [W]hat HBO and company have done is to bring to life that which justifies the darkest part of their own incapacity to see the humanity in those who might threaten the reelection of Barack Obama." — John Nolte, Big Hollywood
The Spin From the Left
"Sarah Palin has everything to lose and precisely nothing to gain from depictions that point her, as 'Game Change' does at various point, as an overzealous evangelical Christian. ... And those of us who dislike Palin have everything to gain by recognizing that we really, truly won: Palin's gone from the national stage. ... We should accept that, be done with the victory dance, and get down to examining the next generation of plausible Republican rising stars. The greatest damage we could do to Sarah Palin — and one of the better things we could do for ourselves — is to move on from her, totally and irrevocably." — Alyssa Rosenberg, Think Progress
The Final Word
"[T]he movie is better than you've heard but not good enough to linger in the mind. I wish it had been more of a black comedy and less of a political-psychological case study. Confronted with this level of genial stupidity and accidental madness, only satire can do history justice. Sarah Palin herself is a triumph of style and a failure of substance; 'Game Change,' the reverse." — Matt Zoller Seitz, New York's Vulture.com
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