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Review of HBO's 'Game Change' Film with Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin

About.com Rating 4.5 Star Rating

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March 11, 2012

Julianne Moore is a gifted actress, yet she never disappears into a role so completely that you forget it's Julianne Moore. (Watch The Kids are Alright or her guest appearances on NBC's 30 Rock as Jack Donaghy's former flame and you get the idea.) However, HBO's Game Change -- which premiered this past weekend -- is itself a game changer for Moore, a role in which she is unrecognizable. In fact, if the cast and crew of the political docudrama had been able to keep Moore under wraps as skillfully as John McCain's campaign team did with Sarah Palin before she was announced as his running mate in 2008, you'd be hard pressed to figure out which actress was under all that hair and makeup and those designer jackets and glasses.

Playing Palin In Over Her Head

In comparison, Meryl Streep's portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in the film Iron Lady could be considered a cakewalk. While our collective memories of Great Britain's sole female Prime Minister are blunted and softened by the passage of time, we've seen Palin constantly in the four years since her vice presidential bid thanks to her books, her reality show, her gig as a Fox commentator and her undeniable talent as a tireless self-promoter. With a side-by-side comparison just a YouTube click away, Moore had to look and sound like Palin -- and replicate her gestures -- without coming across as a knock-off Tina Fey's famous comic impersonation.

To her credit, Moore not only disappears into Palin but shows us a side of the telegenic and crowd-pleasing vice presidential contender that makes her both sympathetic and repugnant at the same time. Like President Reagan, a politician she admires and emulates, Palin turns on the charm for the camera and the crowds. Yet Game Change also reveals the many missteps of a preternaturally sanguine woman who thought she was ready for the national spotlight and finds herself in over her head politically, emotionally and intellectually.

Sarah Bright and Dark

While the book on which the film is based gave us glimpses of the stubborn Palin who resisted the attempts of McCain's aides to rein her in, the film depicts her darkest moments: confusion and overload that has her staring off into space while anxious coaches prep her in vain; depression and anger at being separated from her family and her baby Trig; and a gripping obsession with her approval ratings back in Alaska so intense that it distracts her from the matter at hand -- convincing the American people that she's qualified to be a mere heartbeat away from the Presidency.

Perhaps the most unexpected allegation of Game Change, is that Palin teetered on the edge of a nervous breakdown. In a series of quick edits, we see Palin pushed nearly to the breaking point until she is sprawled out on the floor of her hotel room in a white bathrobe, notes and 3x5 cards scattered around her.

Palin only recovers when she stops trying to be what McCain's team wanted her to be and goes "rogue," ignoring McCain's "Country First" campaign slogan in favor of putting herself first.

Enough Blame to Go Around

Is Game Change a hatchet job on Palin? Not entirely. It does reveal the shortcomings of McCain's team who were so eager to find a conservative woman to balance the ticket that they ineptly vetted their top choice. Even the film's protagonist, campaign strategist Steve Schmidt whose insider perspective made the book and film possible, shares in the blame when he neglects to ask her the sort of basic policy questions that would have revealed her alleged ignorance of most domestic and foreign affairs. Only the most ardent Palin-hater could watch the former mayor of Wasilla -- buoyed by her faith in prayer, God and the conviction that this was "meant to be" -- naively throw herself into the national spotlight believing that Troopergate, a pregnant teenage daughter, her lack of knowledge and ongoing fabrications about her record and her past would not matter in the long run.

Although it's obvious how the campaign ends up, the film builds to a climactic moment on Election Night 2008 when Palin's final grab for the spotlight is thwarted. Fiercely determined to give her own speech in addition to McCain's concession speech, she is told off by Schmidt who forcefully explains that never in the history of the United States has a vice presidential candidate done so and she will not be the first. She seethes as the campaign team readies McCain who is preparing to walk onstage and acknowledge Obama's win.

Coincidence or Foreshadowing?

In a scene which is unnervingly prescient of recent events involving a certain conservative talk show host, McCain -- aware of Palin's displeasure -- turns around to offer her words both conciliatory and cautionary: "You're one of the leaders of the party now, Sarah. Don't get co-opted by Limbaugh and the other extremists. They'll destroy the party if you let them. Remember, you're a hockey mom and you just wanted to make a difference, and you did. A big huge difference. And I'll always be grateful."

If the movie hadn't already been filmed, edited, and finished before Rush Limbaugh called Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke a slut and a prostitute, I might have believed that the second and third sentences were added in for emphasis. Since they weren't, the coincidence makes Game Change even more timely and relevant though the events it depicts are now history.

McCain will never run again, but would Palin? Just last week CNN caught up with her on Super Tuesday at the polls in Wasilla, Alaska. Asked whether she'd run for President if the 2012 primary season didn't produce a clear-cut Republican nominee, she coyly said, "I don't close any doors that perhaps would be open out there." After seeing Game Change, there's a chance that viewers previously on the fence about Palin may now be thinking, "Don't let the door hit you on the way out."

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