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Politics would never be the same.
"And they said we were dead. Next stop: The White House!"
Facts of the Case
The 2008 Presidential race is well underway, and Republican candidate John McCain (Ed Harris, A Beautiful Mind) is trailing Barack Obama in the polls. McCain's campaign strategist Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson, The Hunger Games) knows that the person chosen as the Republican Vice-Presidential candidate could bring a much-needed boost to the campaign, so the choice must be made carefully. In rather hasty fashion, the team lands upon Alaska Governor Sarah Palin (Julianne Moore, Magnolia), an energetic, charismatic political leader with plenty of homespun charm. Initially, it seems as if Palin is McCain's savior: after Palin's memorable speech at the Republican National Convention, the Republicans appear to be poised to take the lead in the race. Alas, it isn't long before Palin's bold personality and lack of experience begin to do more harm than good.
A lot of people snorted at HBO's Game Change (directed by Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery helmer Jay Roach) as nothing more than a liberal hatchet job upon its release. According to many conservative pundits, those smug Hollywood lefties were celebrating Republican Party's 2008 loss with a feature-length collection of cheap jokes at Palin's expense. However, the movie is considerably wiser, more balanced and more empathetic than those pundits suggested; this is a film that makes genuine effort to understand Sarah Palin, rather than merely underlining her shortcomings.
Though the film carefully documents the details of McCain's Presidential run (the film focuses exclusively on the Republican side of the 2008 presidential race), it has something larger to say about the modern political process. One of Roach's most considerable achievements is the way he captures the manner in which significant political issues are consistently pushed out of the spotlight to make room for superficial trivialities. Political discourse in America is as ugly as ever, and the subjects at the center of many of our debates are increasingly less significant. We fight over ephemeral distractions while the truly important subjects fade into the distance. That would happen even if our assorted candidates behaved in thoroughly admirable fashion, much less when a figure like Palin is so willing fan the flames.
Julianne Moore's portrayal of Palin is an interesting one—Tina Fey did a better job of capturing Palin's "aw, shucks" routine as a public figure, but Moore's most effective moments are those that allow us to see Palin outside the public eye. She seems simultaneously exhilarated and terrified by the process, a woman either unwilling or unable to comprehend the advice she is given and all-too-eager to regard herself as McCain's political equal. The dynamic nature of her personality changes the very tenor of the campaign, as many conservative voters gravitate towards Palin's brand of fundamentalism while begrudgingly accepting McCain as some sort of necessary sidekick. As was the case with Mitt Romney's 2012 run, John McCain's campaign turned out to be the story of a right-leaning moderate making an unsuccessful bid to pander to an increasingly ultraconservative base.
Ed Harris' turn as McCain is arguably the film's strongest performance; it's a rather sympathetic look at a fundamentally decent person who finds himself trapped in the sort of campaign he didn't initially want to run. Harris plays the role with an affecting blend of warmth and regret, highlighting a side of McCain's persona that doesn't appear often enough in his public appearances. In interviews, McCain can occasionally come across as an irritable, out-of-touch blowhard, but there have also been plenty of moments in which he's revealed himself to be a thoughtful, good-hearted man who's just trying to follow his conscience. It's the latter side of McCain that Harris accentuates, and it's a wise one.
Despite the fact that Woody Harrelson's Steve Schmidt is the film's protagonist, he's really more of an audience surrogate than a compelling central character in his own right. Sure, Harrelson plays the role convincingly (and it's nice to see him getting to play something other than a quirky supporting character or psychopathic villain for a change), but he's the sane center of some increasingly insane events. His reaction to Palin mirrors that of many voters in 2008: initial fascination and exhilaration quickly followed by steadily-increasing disappointment.
Game Change (Blu-ray) arrives sporting a handsome 1080p/1.78:1 transfer. As is often the case with HBO-produced movies, the whole affair feels smaller than a great deal of big-screen fare but nonetheless feels far more polished than the made-for-TV movies that air on most other networks. Detail is strong throughout, particularly facial detail. The color palette is bright and vibrant; blacks are deep and inky. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is quite satisfactory as well, delivering the dialogue-driven track with clarity and detail. The music and sound design is pretty low-key, so don't expect a showcase disc, but it's effective. Supplements include two brief, fluff-heavy featurettes ("Creating a Candidate" and "Game Change: The Phenomenon"), a DVD copy and a digital copy.
There's no question that Game Change offers a somewhat unfavorable portrait of Sarah Palin, but it certainly isn't the sort of savage attack conservative critics have accused it of being. It does a better job of sticking to established facts than many biopics, and Roach demonstrates once again that politically-charged drama is his strong suit. Add in exceptional performances from Julianne Moore and Ed Harris and you have a film well worth spending a couple of hours with. Recommended.
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