Air date: March 10th 2012
Running time: 118 minutes
Director: Jay Roach
Writer: Danny Strong (screenplay), John Heilemann, Mark Halperin
Cast: Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson, Sarah Paulson, Ed Harris
American politics is a subject which makes me feel a bit of an oddball. In 2003, like many, I became suddenly politically aware when the invasion of Iraq took place, led by a country that was still dealing with a major man-made disaster that took nearly 3000 lives on its soil in the heart of New York City and Washington D.C.
Having recently moved to London at the time, I looked at geopolitics and American politics as a way of mastering my English, by learning about something I had genuine interest for.
In the following years I found myself submerging ever-deeper in the daily happenings of the United States. Fareed Zakaria, Rachel Maddow, Joe Scarborough and Chris Matthews are all names that don’t mean very much to people on this side of the pond, but I get ‘my news’ from them on a regular basis. There is one name however, that rings familiar to people not just in the US, but in most of the western world: Sarah Palin.
John McCain’s vice presidential pick, and the events that followed in the battle against Barack Obama in 2008, were so fascinatingly unexpected that Palin’s name, her story, and just about every aspect of her life, became the subject of interest and scrutiny.
In January 2010 a book titled Game Change, written by political journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, was released telling the story of the elections. In spite of an overarching account of the entire process, much of the media attention focused on how Sarah Palin was selected to be the GOP vice presidential candidate. The book contained startling revelations about her lack of knowledge on several crucial subjects beyond what we had already known from the now infamous interviews with Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric.
Two years later Danny Strong – based on this book – crafted a script to tell a behind-the-scenes story revolving not just around Palin, but campaign strategist Steve Schmidt and senior advisor Nicolle Wallace.
A very promising cast is cause for cautious optimism right away with Julianne Moore as Palin and Woody Harrelson in the role of Steve Schmidt. Watching the film, I found myself in the zone with a nail-biting political drama that surprised me in many ways.
All of the preconceived ideas I had, quickly disintegrated. The film is not about what’s right or wrong, it’s not even about politics; Game Change is about the game of chess that is campaigning against a rival party. As much as I didn’t want the McCain/Palin ticket to make it through in 2008, I found myself rooting for them while watching the film.
We’re placed among the campaign staffers in the middle of an extremely difficult election and we can’t help but try to figure out what the right move would be to beat Obama, no matter how we feel about Republicans or Democrats. The film’s ability to draw us into the story in such a profound way is a remarkable achievement in writing, directing and acting all at once.
Much of what unfolds can be understood and anticipated in a very effective opening that shows what John McCain (Ed Harris) was up against in 2008. As McCain wins his party’s nomination for the presidency, he states to an enthusiastic crowd: “Next stop the – White House”. Then it cuts to a live television broadcast from Berlin. An immense crowd of two hundred thousand people are in a near trance-like state celebrating the biggest superstar on the planet: Barack Obama. McCain’s advisors, led by Schmidt, soon agree that a “middle aged white guy” is not going to help them win,. They need to fundamentally change the dynamic; they need a “Game Changer” for vice president.
This is where we see the first major problem the GOP campaign had to deal with: they had been vetting possible candidates for months, but because Obama was such a transformative figure, none of those candidates would give conservatives the fire they so desperately needed. They had to start from scratch and they simply didn’t have time. A charismatic and attractive woman was found on YouTube – of all places – and Sarah Palin, the governor of Alaska, was announced as VP candidate in a matter of days, without anybody asking her policy questions beforehand.
There is much depth and humanity in the relationship between Palin, Schmidt and senior advisor Nicolle Wallace (Sarah Paulson), underpinned by superb performances. In these extraordinary circumstances, under extreme pressure, the three of them have a volatile dynamic that shows an incredible range of human emotions.
Palin is portrayed as a sensitive person who feels homesick, and is genuinely hurt by the ruthless and persistent attacks on her. She was tempted to run with McCain by people telling her she was an extraordinary and transformative figure, and she was even compared to none other than the undisputed conservative hero – Ronald Reagan. Palin believed all of those wonderful things.
We begin to comprehend the scale of the impending disaster when Schmidt realises Palin thinks the Queen is the head of government in England. In the ensuing panic, we watch as Schmidt and Wallace tell Palin what the Federal Reserve is and that Saddam Hussein wasn’t behind 9/11 – and the Republican campaign is in danger of imploding at any moment.
The inevitable question with a film like Game Change is whether or not we’re watching a truthful rendition of what took place behind the scenes of the McCain/Palin campaign. I think the answer lies with Steve Schmidt and Nicolle Wallace, both of whom took a great deal of risk by admitting to their mistakes in managing the McCain campaign.
It’s disappointing to see Game Change broadcast on television only, especially at a time when we need good movies in cinemas. It would be an intensely superb political drama even if it was entirely fictional. It’s a film that reveals a lot about the ins and outs of the political process; how campaigners understand and manipulate the media, how much it’s about numbers and strategy behind the scenes while we’re watching politicians giving patriotic speeches and interviews.
More than anything else, Game Change is a cautionary tale about a grave mistake and the importance of the vetting possible candidates running for office. There are several incredible, jaw-dropping and heart-pounding moments of shock watching the campaign and realising it’s simply too late to stop and rectify bad decisions – the show must go on and Game Change tells us why.
Arpad is a Film Studies graduate and passionate photographer (he picked up the camera and started taking stills just as he began his studies of moving pictures). He admires directors that can tell a story first of all in images. More or less inevitably, Brian De Palma has become Aprad’s favourite filmmaker.
Then there’s Arpad’s interest in anime. He was just a boy when he saw Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind on an old VHS and was hypnotised by the story of friendship, devotion and sacrifice. He still marvels at the uncompromising and courageous storytelling in Japanese anime, and wonders about the western audience with its ever growing appetite for “Japanemation”.