Though not a theatrical release, HBO's Game Change, an adaptation of Mark Halperin and John Heilemann's novel about the 2008 presidential election, ranks up there with some of the best behind-the-scenes political thrillers. Though some (on sides left and right) will balk at the film's portrayal of political lightning rod Sarah Palin (Julianne Moore), Game Change does, in all honesty, deserve quite a bit of credit for tackling such a highly divisive figure and coming out with effective results.
The film beings with John McCain's (Ed Harris) campaign on a downward slide, and unfortunately this is mirrored in the quality of the opening scenes. As a whole, Danny Strong's screenplay is quick and sharp, but before Sarah Palin's introduction into the mix, Game Change feels slightly off, and at times weirdly on the nose (particularly in a scene where McCain's advisors inform him of the need for a "game changer"). Yet once Julianne Moore's Palin picks up her cell at an amusement park and says, "This is Sarah..." Game Change does a complete 180. Palin herself had plenty of incredible highs and shocking lows during the '08 campaign, but Jay Roach's film captures the good and the bad with a fierce intelligence.
And even though Tina Fey has already created her own landmark portrayal of the former VP hopeful, Moore's performance is richer by virtue of not being a parody. Palin certainly isn't lionized, and there are times when she is drawn as an expert of image maneuvering, but she isn't thrown under the bus for the campaign's loss, nor is she portrayed as a villain. Whether Palin is eagerly taking down notes, or slouched in a chair in a catatonic stupor, Moore keeps the portrayal grounded, never once veering into broad-strokes territory. Yes, she has her vocal tics, accent, and even her walk down, but thanks to Moore's commitment to the turn and the sharp script, the surface details don't end up controlling the performance. What the film does best, with the benefits being tremendous, is present Palin with as many facets as it can, all underlined by one crucial idea: regardless of her intentions, or her ability to function as a political celebrity, she was simply not prepared for the chaos of the national stage.
'Stage' is a particularly appropriate word, because in fits in with the film's larger idea, one that's bigger than McCain, Palin, and Obama combined: the transformation of the politics - specifically, elections - in the age of social media and the 24 hour news cycle. As Palin becomes more prominent, McCain all but vanishes as the campaign's focal point. Palin is the GOP's Obama, an appealing politician who has the energy to also function as a celebrity. This notion plays out beautifully over the film's 2 hour run time, namely in scenes involving campaign manager Steve Schmidt, and senior campaign advisor Nicolle Wallace (Woody Harrelson and Sarah Paulson, both excellent).
Yet what Game Change ultimately does best, which is high praise considering the strong individual pieces, is recreate the twists, turns, and thrills of the 2008 election, although here it's been condensed into 2 hours, and not painfully dragged out over 3 months with endless coverage. In fact, Roach's film almost makes the race more exciting, because of all of the glimpses, some developed, some fleeting, we are afforded of the campaign's behind-the-scenes activities. Occasionally it becomes overwritten - listening to characters issue commentary while Palin delivers her famed RNC address disrupts the flow somewhat - but on the whole it's a riveting piece of political story-telling that, thanks to its real-life basis, avoids sensationalism. Every once and a while, I thought Roach and company were about to take things into the full-on thriller genre, but nothing ever materialized. There is no Chekhov's gun, and the script feels no need to contrive one. There was never an intention of making this a thriller, rather, Game Change's story is simply thrilling in its own right: thrilling written, thrillingly acted, and thrillingly constructed, even though it's ultimately just a string of conversations among a group of conflicted individuals.