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Sarah Palin Without the Starbursts: Why HBO's 'Game Change' Falls Flat

On Saturday night at 9 p.m., political reporters across the Beltway will gather round their flat-screens swelling with an odd mix of regret and expectation, like paunchy forty-somethings at a college reunion looking at an old video clip from that great blow-out party years past. Boy, did we have it good, then, and boy is life now dull by comparison. Instead of Obama and Hillary, it's Mitt and Rick. And instead of Sarah Palin, it'll be ... Rob Portman? Whoever it is, it won't measure up, not even close.

But for one night, we can try and relive the glories of 2008, or at least the delectable Palin-dominated portion of it that HBO chose to focus on in adapting to the small screen Game Change, the behind-the-scenes tell-all of the 2008 campaign by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. The film takes us back to that heady season with workmanlike efficiency, marching us past all the stations of the Palin cycle: the desperation that led John McCain to select her, her breakthrough convention speech, the disastrous TV interviews and semi-recovery for her debate with Joe Biden, her rogue breakaway in the final weeks of the campaign. Holding it all together is the tragic framework through which many have properly come to regard the Palin episode: that McCain, a war hero whose campaign was built around his claim to putting “country first,” had put the country at great risk by selecting for the vice presidency — the back-up to a 72-year-old cancer survivor — someone so manifestly unfit for the role.

Yet try as the filmmakers might, it just isn't the same. How could it be, really? For starters, how can one truly capture Sarah Palin? Sure, Tina Fey did so brilliantly in satiric form, but Julianne Moore set out to meet a much higher dramatic bar here and falls short. Moore looks the part, and gamely ventures Palin's Alaska accent, often to the point of excess (her “deal” comes too close to “dill,” her “feel” too close to “fill.”) But she simply cannot convey the sheer magic of Palin, the alluring combination of ideological intensity, provincial gumption and wink-wink sauciness that made one smitten conservative pundit declare that she “sent little starbursts through the screen and ricocheting around the living rooms of America.” A wise political observer noted to me during the campaign that one of the things that made Palin such a bold choice was that she was truly of the frontier – she hunted moose (albeit less avidly than she'd have us believe); her part-native husband fished for salmon in Bristol Bay and worked the North Slope oil fields. This sort of hockey mom was a breed apart from the minivan chauffeurs that decide elections in suburban Denver and Northern Virginia. But Moore's Palin utterly lacks this strain of tousled Wasilla wildness; she is a suburban PTA mom to the core, so domesticated and sedated from the first moment we see her that it is very hard to believe that McCain's headhunters would have seized onto her after a glimpse of a few video clips – or that she would have sent huge campaign crowds into rapture. (The crowd scenes, I should say here, are a real strength in the film; the book glaringly failed to convey the broader context in which the candidates and consultant were operating, including the crowds that, in the case of Palin's audiences, edged from delirious to frighteningly venomous.)

The real Palin has complained that the film unfairly casts her as a complete dimwit; only she and her McCain handlers know for sure whether, for instance, she really let slip that she thought that England's government was run by the queen, as the film portrays. If anything, the film leaves out some of the more salacious material at its disposal, such as the scene in the book where Palin opens her hotel room door to McCain's advisers wearing only a towel, or her purported remark to McCain adman Fred Davis when he came upon her in the dressing room: “my brand is hair-up, isn't it?” No, more objectionable than any alleged flightiness in the portrayal of Palin, if you ask me, is that the film has deprived her of her spirit and her verve, the qualities that gave force both to her demagoguery and her charm.

Again, though, this is an understandable flaw. We may have to wait many years, until long after Palin has left the scene, before she gets her Meryl Streep. More perplexing to me are the film's other flaws. Most notably, the film suffers from the rather inexplicable shortcoming of far too many political dramas, dialogue that is so plodding, simplistic and overdrawn that is as if the filmmakers believe their audience is coming to the political game for the very first time. This is especially odd given the knowing, insider-y tone in which Heilemann and Halperin's book was written, and also odd given that the film's director, Jay Roach, has worked in this genre before, in 2008's well-reviewed Recount. Perhaps our standards have been set too high by the David Simons of television, who introduce us to worlds far more foreign to most of us—say, inner-city narcotics dealers—with dialogue that is both far more inscrutable and far more convincing. But surely we can do better than lines like this, in the crucial scene where McCain campaign gurus Steve Schmidt and Rick Davis give McCain their pitch for Palin:

“She's an attractive mother of five. She likes to moose hunt,” says the Davis character, played by Peter MacNicol. “This is a woman with a gun, John. The base is going to do back-flips.”
Schmidt, played by Woody Harrelson, chimes in, “Furthermore, she's outside the box. She helps you recapture the maverick label, which will help you win back independents. She's everything you need.”
McCain, played by Ed Harris, answers: “You don't think she might be too outside the box?”
“That's what makes her such a maverick choice,” says Schmidt.

Now, I wasn't in the room, but I'm pretty sure the conversation was a fair bit more colorful than that. And the problem goes beyond the dialogue: Even as it makes it its central theme, the film fails to plumb the depths of the opportunism and cynicism that led to the Palin debacle. Part of this has to do with Harris' inert portrayal of McCain—the candidate here has none of the senator's antic and irascible vitality, and seems instead to be simply drifting along in late-career equanimity, thus depriving the candidate's fall into despondent chagrin of much of its pathos.

But most lacking is Harrelson's Schmidt, who is, to put it bluntly, simply too nice of a guy. The real Schmidt is tougher and smarter than his rendering here. He is also far more hooded, pugnacious and fatalistic. I still recall my encounter with him outside the motel in Wasilla where we both happened to be watching Palin's first big interview, the one with Charlie Gibson where she blanked on the “Bush doctrine” and boasted of her physical proximity to Putin's Russia. An hour later, we bumped into each other outside, where he was smoking a cigarette in the rain. We got chatting, and he was still very much on the clock, spinning hard. I asked him how he thought the interview went and he said it went very well, that Palin would go over great with viewers. He asked what I was doing in town and I told him about the piece I was working on, and that I would be leaving in a day or two and was looking forward to that after a week in Wasilla. He cocked his head at me. What, I didn't like small towns, small-town America? I was amazed. Here we were, late at night in the parking lot, but apparently there was never a bad moment for another shot in Palin's culture war. No, I said, it wasn't that at all—I grew up in a small town, have worked and lived in many of them. No, I just wanted to get back to my family, that's all. That got us back onto safer ground and a few minutes later we called it a night.

After the election, of course, we learned just how hard Schmidt was spinning at that moment—that he was already more aware than just about anyone what a disastrous pick Palin had been. He went public with his opinion of her, and clearly played a major role in shaping Game Change. All of us political junkies are indebted to him for that, for the delightful picture that emerged. But the country would have been better off if he had come clean sooner, and this film would have been better if it had conveyed the full power of the cynicism and expedience that powered Schmidt through those weeks. He wouldn't have come off as sympathetically, but he would've been grander, more real, and more true.

Alec MacGillis is a senior editor at The New Republic.