Monday, March 12, 2012

McCain-Palin Politics as Kabuki Theatre

Reviewed by Jerry Saravia

Whatever political beliefs one has towards Sarah Palin, one can't help but feel a smidgeon of sympathy for her in "Game Change," an HBO film that is pungent, extraordinarily acted and written and is as enveloping and fascinating about the political process as almost anything else I've seen in a while.

The superlative Julianne Moore is the Alaskan governor who is picked at the last minute to be Republican John McCain's vice-presidential nominee in a run to the White House against the Democratic opponent, Barack Obama. Although she doesn't agree with all of McCain's ideology (stem-cell research, abortion), she feels it is God's way of telling her to run so she goes for it, unhinged and fearless. Woody Harrelson is Steve Schmidt, the campaign strategist who helps with an iron and sympathetic fist. Sarah Paulson is Nicole Wallace, the senior advisor to the campaign who tries and repeatedly fails to prep Palin. One awfully cringe-worthy scene shows Sarah Palin getting a history lesson in foreign affairs, particularly with Afghanistan and Iraq (she runs with the false notion that Saddam Hussein started the 9/11 attacks). I do not doubt that this scene happened in real life but it is hard to figure a woman running for Vice President who has no idea that North and South Korea are in fact separate countries.

Ed Harris is brilliant as John McCain, and the Arizona senator is shown as a strong, idealistic man who doesn't like negative campaign ads nor does he seem very pleased to have a naive woman running side-by-side. The implication seems to be that Palin is getting all the press, all the glory, and McCain is shut out by the voters and the press. What McCain may or may not have thought about all this is left to the imagination, and we never really see the two sharing more than the occasional photo-op at conventions.

Meanwhile, Sarah Palin has trouble following the nuances of foreign policy; is texting more often than listening to Sarah Paulson, who tries her damnedest to prep the Alaskan governor; is forced to memorize answers to her Vice-Presidential debate (ah, so that is why she did so well); fouls up the infamous interviews with Charles Gibson and Katie Couric, and so on.

The impression left from "Game Change" is that McCain's advisers and strategists threw this "moose-hunting" woman to the wolves when she came close to having a nervous breakdown. Her only success was the Vice-Presidential debate but it did little to stir voters and was a muted success at best. She is seen as naive and uninformed and unsuitable to run for office, which can hardly be debated. Her "Troopergate" controversy, the Bridge to Nowhere, her daughter's pregnancy and the expensive suits she wore are given minimal exposure, and rightfully so (the relationship with her husband, Todd, could've used more screen time). Julianne Moore doesn't try to outdo Tina Fey's comical mimicry of Sarah Palin nor does she turn her into a clown. Moore invests humanity and compassion into a woman who truly did seem to care about people - Sarah Palin never struck me as artificial or heedlessly kowtowing to beliefs she did not actually feel. She is a celebrity and she has a strong personality and remarkable composure - love her or hate her, her star shines.

Based on the controversial book "Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime" by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, the movie has already been accused of having a "false  narrative" by Sarah Palin (who lavished the same charges on the book in 2010). Every non-fiction film plays with truth since it is intended as a dramatization of events. But as a behind-the-scenes 21st-century look at the political process by which a candidate is selected in this media-saturated age, it is deeply absorbing and also very troubling. Deep down, I think Sarah knows it too.