There are times when TV dramas about national politics and politicians deserve criticism, even ridicule, for their fast-and-loose narratives and characterizations. Recent miniseries about the Reagans and the Kennedys, loaded with unsubstantiated dialogue and action, are only two very fresh examples.
But Game Change — HBO's new take on the John McCain-Sarah Palin campaign — is entertaining, and commendable, precisely because it stays so close to the facts, not because it strays from them.
The TV movie is directed by Jay Roach and adapted by Danny Strong from John Heilemann and Mark Halperin's book. Roach and Strong are the pair that presented Recount, an earlier HBO movie about a stranger-than-fact presidential race: the 2000 George W. Bush-Al Gore hanging-chad contest.
In that 2008 movie, Laura Dern played Katherine Harris, the Florida secretary of state who found herself suddenly in the limelight and at the center of a huge national political controversy. Dern played her beautifully, but also comically — and I can sympathize with those who have yet to see Game Change and are wary that Sarah Palin, played by Julianne Moore, may be treated as even more of an object of ridicule here.
But she isn't. Palin is portrayed with empathy. And that focus, along with Moore's absorbingly effective performance, makes Game Change work.
HBO's publicity team has leapt into the fray, defending the accuracy of the production and pointing out that screenwriter Danny Strong conducted 25 additional interviews as supplementary research for his screenplay.
The book was criticized and questioned for not citing its sources. But it's easy, watching the movie, to guess the identity of the primary sources. In Game Change, the political aides who end up clashing with Palin the most — Woody Harrelson as Steve Schmidt, and Sarah Paulson as Nicolle Wallace — get the most screen time of any aides, and are presented the most positively.
Yet the story itself — the tale of why and how Palin was plucked from thin air, or at least Alaska, to bolster the Republican presidential ticket — is strong enough, and complicated enough, that this HBO drama wisely plays by an old political broadcasting rule. Dramatically, at least, it gives both sides equal time.
In the book version of Game Change, Sarah Palin didn't emerge until well past the halfway point. Advance criticism, from those who have yet to see the drama, charges that HBO is telling only part of the book's story. That's perfectly true. But dramatically, in TV-movie terms, it also makes perfect sense. HBO's Game Change is the story of a woman thrown suddenly into the national arena, playing a political game with enormous stakes, and trying to impress and improve in one media interview and televised debate after another — and not always succeeding.
The Tina Fey impression of Sarah Palin, which is shown in Game Change, was all caricature and exaggeration, honing in on her ill-informed answers, her photogenic appeal and her sentences to nowhere. Julianne Moore's Sarah Palin, though, is a character, not a caricature. When advisers push her too hard to study for a debate or an interview, she pushes back, or shuts down — and the underlying tone of those scenes, on both sides, is frustration.
Those awkward, weighty silences are something you hear, more and more, as Game Change proceeds. In some scenes, as advisers try to prepare her for the next interview or debate, Moore's Sarah Palin has almost no lines at all. Instead, she just ignores the questions, taps out text messages on her cellphone, and goes into a passive-aggressive cone of silence until the other person gives up and retreats. Both sides have reason for their frustrations — but the whole point here is that there are two sides. They should be unified, working as one political machine.
But in politics, as in life, personal agendas and personalities have a way of surfacing, and even dominating. That happens in the HBO movie Game Change, just as it happened on the campaign trail in 2008 — and just as it's happening now, in a political firestorm about the very existence of this telemovie, much less its content.
But HBO's Game Change, to me, is two things that make it praiseworthy. It's fair — and balanced.