Early in HBO’s political docudrama “Game Change,” a note-taking Sarah Palin, running for vice president of the United States, gets a crash course in geopolitics.
“This,” explains a heroically patient foreign policy expert with a map, “is Germany.”
To say Julianne Moore’s steely, thoughtlessly ambitious Palin is in over her head would be like saying the 2008 presidential race was a tad divisive. (And apparently remains so: Randy Scheunemann, Palin’s loyal foreign policy adviser, told reporters last week that “to call this movie fiction gives fiction a bad name.” HBO released a statement standing by the movie.)
Based on portions of the best-selling nonfiction book “Game Change” by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, the TV-movie takes a rollicking approach to Republican candidate John McCain’s choice of Palin as his running mate.
The political theater makes for a breezy two hours, though it certainly won’t tickle fans of the lipsticked pit bull. The former governor of Alaska, as viewed through the eyes of McCain strategist Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson), is a political blunder of epic proportions, a self-serving know-nothing who provides U.S. history with one of its scariest what-ifs.
“Oh my God,” says Schmidt, watching Palin crumble under Katie Couric’s softball questions. “What have we done?”
Director Jay Roach and screenwriter Danny Strong begin the story in August 2007, when McCain (a benign Ed Harris) recruits strategist Schmidt to rescue his faltering campaign. Among the first tasks is finding a suitable running mate.
McCain wants right-leaning Democrat Joe Lieberman. “We’re both mavericks within our own parties,” he says, in one of the script’s painfully on-the-nose bits of dialogue.
Palin -- chosen by McCain adviser Rick Davis (Peter MacNicol) after a Google search -- is championed by Schmidt, who sees the camera-ready governor as just the game changer McCain needs.
A rudimentary vetting fails to unearth even the minor controversies of Palin’s past, and the rising star’s lack of qualifications threatens McCain’s campaign and hard-won reputation.
“Governor, do you know what the Fed is?,” the increasingly panicked Schmidt asks during a prep session. Her blank stare says it all. When Tina Fey gets through with her, Palin is a national joke.
As drama, “Game Change” feels lower-stakes than Roach and Strong’s previous HBO effort, “Recount,” which applied a similarly dishy, arch tone to 2000’s Bush-Gore Florida battle. The frightening prospect of an ill-informed Palin being a heartbeat from the presidency is tempered by history: We know how this turns out.
Moore, perfectly coifed and costumed, nails the Palin voice and mannerisms, and captures the charm (especially in interactions with special-needs kids) and the snark (“Thank you for cuttin’ the mullet, Levi.”) Her Palin is convincing, from initial arrogance to the near-catatonic fear that has her going rogue out of desperate self-preservation.
The candidate’s family life isn’t addressed much; husband Todd is barely here, and Bristol mostly mopes and cries.
A strong Harrelson -- supported by Sarah Paulson as Palin-handler Nicolle Wallace -- gives “Game Change” the backbone its John McCain sorely lacks. Harris’ McCain comes off as a kindly, distracted grandpa done in by his own negligence, without a hint of the real warrior’s temper or fire.
Perhaps the filmmakers were hoping to offset inevitable charges of partisanship by going soft on McCain -- a fool’s errand, of course -- but they’ve done the Republican senator from Arizona no favors. This Mr. Nice Guy seems only slightly more suitable for the world stage than Palin, and far less capable of holding our interest.
“Game Change” airs on HBO Saturday at 9 p.m. New York time. Rating: ***
What the Stars Mean: **** Excellent *** Good ** Average * Poor (No stars) Worthless
(Greg Evans is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are his own.)