In a scene from the great 1984 comedy Top Secret!, American rocker Nick Rivers (Val Kilmer) is savagely beaten by East German jailers and falls into a hallucination. He's back in high school, racing around the hallways trying to learn the location of the final chemistry exam. "All the exams are over," a classmate tells him ominously. "Haven't you been to class?" "No!" Nick cries. "No! I haven't studied! I'm back in school! I can't believe I'm back in school!" Then he wakes up to find himself being savagely whipped. "Thank God," he says.
HBO's Game Change, about the making and unmaking of vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin during the 2008 presidential election, is basically that scene stretched out to feature length — an agonizing experience. You don't need to know the names of political consultants or remember every detail of the campaign to become immersed in it, because in its heart, it's about coming up against the limits of one's own competence. This harsh lesson is learned not by Palin, but by the people who submitted her as McCain's running mate, and by McCain himself, who unknowingly ceded the election the minute he added her to the ticket.
For Sarah Palin (Julianne Moore), indeed for everyone on the McCain campaign team, the election season is final exam week, and as the big day draws near, they become increasingly surly and depressed. McCain (Ed Harris) and his campaign strategist Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson) signed off on the drafting of Palin because they wanted to find an authentic and unique running mate, a woman who would kick McCain out of the old-white-guy perception rut he'd been stuck in, reestablish his "maverick" bona fides, shake up the race, and lend him a proxy version of Barack Obama's rock star buzz, which the McCain team misinterprets as empty flash. ("If he heals a sick baby, we're really fucked," McCain grumbles, after catching a glimpse of Obama thronged by admirers at a campaign event.) The film's conception of Palin as a woman who's in over her head, and a campaign that's every bit as overmatched, might account for all the early reviews that note, with some surprise, that Game Change isn't the gleeful hatchet job a lot of people anticipated, and that at times it even treats the former Alaska governor with something like sympathy. But that's no giant shock, really. Even a mostly loathsome and laughable public figure becomes likable when you put her in a position that everybody can relate to. So many scenes in this docudrama-styled movie are about people stumbling onto the precipice of their own ignorance or ill-preparedness, then pinwheeling their arms like cartoon characters to keep from falling into the abyss.
But just because Game Change humanizes Palin and the McCain team doesn't mean it's a whitewash, or a on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand airtime-filler. Nor, for that matter, is it the character assassination job that right-wing bloggers reflexively claimed it was, long before anyone outside of HBO had actually seen it. As adapted by by Danny Strong from the best seller by Time's Mark Halperin and New York Magazine's John Heilemann, and as directed by Jay Roach (who helmed HBO's Recount), the film has a very specific focus. It's not about the rightness or wrongness of the Democratic or Republican platforms, or about any specific policy advanced by any candidate. It's about how the already insane intensity of the 24-hour news cycle got cranked up by the debut of YouTube, which gave average citizens the chance to watch Palin make an ass of herself in interviews on Good Morning America or Today, or Tina Fey mock Palin's "Yah, you betcha!" density on Saturday Night Live, then watch those same clips over and over and over on demand, and send them to friends so that they can watch them endlessly, too. And it's about how Obama's team used these cultural facts to its candidate's advantage while McCain's team cynically misunderstood them. The fishbowl phenomenon is ancient, but the technology and pace of 2008 were new and intimidating. Obama's campaign seemed to have a pretty good handle on it; McCain's people were lost, despite the fact that, as citizens with smart phones and Internet connections and cable TV, they were just as immersed in the changing world as their opponents. "No presidential campaign has ever had to deal with this before," Schmidt proclaims, and he's right.
Team McCain's key mistake, according to this film, was to presume that Obama's appeal was about empty charisma that was made to seem substantial and durable through a mix of old and new media, an alchemy that his advisers cleverly exploited. "This is a woman with a gun, John!" campaign manager Rick Davis (Peter MacNicol) tells the senator, sounding like a studio marketing whiz trying to get his boss excited about a big summer action flick. McCain's campaign team thought it could teach Palin what she needed to know to be a capable candidate, and that what mattered most at the moment in history was her singular ability to generate excitement in the ultraconservative Republican base that McCain couldn't seem to please. They thought that the rest of her candidacy — the part built around facts and stuff — could be filled in later. But as the movie unreels, Schmidt and his team realize, with horror and some shame, that Palin can't be taught — that she really is the type of candidate that they mistakenly assumed Obama was, a fresh face with enough talent and intelligence to fake it till he could make it.
The most stinging scene in the film — and the one that's likely to be picked over endlessly by McCain and Palin partisans as evidence that Game Change is a hit job — finds the vice-presidential candidate sitting on a plane opposite Schmidt and senior campaign adviser Nicolle Wallace (Sarah Paulson), prepping for a Good Morning America interview. As Palin awkwardly tap dances her way through question after question, the advisers realize she knows little about the actual mechanics of governance. She even has to have the shorthand phrase "the fed" explained to her. Paulson and Harrelson — who are as superb here as Moore, though less obviously tour-de-force-y because they're playing people we haven't watched or read about every day for years — convey the full awfulness of the moment through their aghast reaction shots. Part of a campaign team's job is to instill confidence in a candidate and help her maximize her strengths and minimize her weaknesses. But when Schmidt and Wallace stare into Palin's eyes, they can no longer deny that they're looking at somebody who just isn't qualified to be vice-president, God forbid president, and that no amount of SAT-style cramming will change that. "It's not that she doesn't know the right answer," says analyst Fareed Zakaria in a snippet of cable news footage, "it's that she clearly doesn't understand the question."
To its credit, Game Change doesn't pull the "This movie is not really about politics" trick. It is about politics. Specifically, it's about the political parties' responsibility to rise above the flash and chatter and present candidates who, whatever their political views or relative charisma levels, are qualified to lead the country. McCain's team failed this basic task; in time even Schmidt, whose ego is bigger than he thinks, has to admit as much. The script presents Palin as an ill-prepared and deeply narcissistic person who seems to view others as mere extensions of herself (except for her husband and kids, whom the movie treats with warmth and respect). But it never forgets that without Schmidt, Wallace, Davis, and their boss McCain, Palin would have stayed in Alaska, and McCain might have lost honorably, without having committed what amounted to gross electoral negligence by picking somebody who was arguably the least qualified vice-presidential candidate in modern history, a woman who made George H.W. Bush's running mate Dan Quayle look like Daniel Patrick Moynihan. (Palin's selection was also an insult to Republican women, a point that the film gets into only tangentially.)
The movie is so smart and ethical that I wish it were better. As a piece of filmmaking, it just feels too typical. I have a feeling that in a few years I'll remember it in much the same way that I remember Recount: as a surprisingly involving ripped-from-headlines political drama that I have to be reminded that I saw. It's mainly worth seeing for its four lead performances: Harrelson as Schmidt, a smart man lacking basic common sense, his padded gut and furrowed brow making him look faintly like Lawrence Tierney; Paulson as Wallace, slowly realizing she's a party to a political atrocity, but trying to convince herself otherwise; Harris as McCain, a decent man and uninspiring candidate who mistakes righteous certitude for common sense; Moore as Palin, rushing around the school halls yelling, "I haven't studied!" Beyond that, the 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.