As of 2015, Sarah Palin is about as relevant as a gnat feasting on a rotting banana in your kitchen's overstuffed garbage can. She will not live on in the history books as the game-changing vice president that wasn’t. She, unfortunately or fortunately, depending on your political reasoning, will forever be the Alaskan governor who got in way over her head in running alongside John McCain for the 2008 presidency.
Today, she’s better off adorning the monitors of “Where Are They Now?” specials, or by coming back in the form of Tina Fey in scathing Saturday Night Live reruns. Ridiculing Palin was and perhaps still is a highlight for the liberal American public — and yet, after years of looking down at her as a well-meaning but feather-brained hockey mom with a soft-spot for politics, the involving Game Change (2012) casts her in a sympathetic light that can be equal parts sympathetic and maddening.
This time around, the governor is not portrayed by the incomparable Fey but the luminous Julianne Moore, who disappears so completely into the role that it isn’t hard to come to the clichéd conclusion that we’re really seeing Palin going through the motions of a presidential campaign.
Told through the perspectives of campaign strategist Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson) and communications head Nicolle Wallace (Sarah Paulson), Game Change covers the tumultuous tone Senator John McCain’s (Ed Harris) took after Schmidt hastily choose Palin as his energizing vice president. Meant to be a bombshell to rival the ever-mounting star power of Barack Obama, Palin was selected due to her near universal adoration in Alaska and her enviable ability to magnetize crowds; but as it suddenly became apparent that Palin, naïve and never indebted with crushing responsibility, didn’t know anything about politics, McCain’s campaign took a turn for the worse, only heightening Obama’s popularity with the public.
I was only in middle school during McCain and Palin’s run for office. But it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that Palin, wholesome and vulnerable, was a peculiar and misguided choice for vice president, not because she was necessarily inept but because she didn't quite understand any of the facets that came with the job.
Schmidt himself called her the greatest actress in the history of American politics, and we can only cringe as the film goes through long stretches where Palin is tasked with memorizing facts simply because energy and local issues are the only things she really knows about.
We don’t find ourselves making fun of her in the same way we did watching Tina Fey lampoon her week after week on SNL, though; we pity her. She would have lived a much happier life had she stayed an Alaskan figurehead and never reached national notoriety — the catatonic state in which she found herself before her infamous Katie Couric interview is understandable. One can only imagine what it must feel like to go from a small-time politician to a major one who no one has an ounce of faith in.
Game Change’s biggest weakness is that it bears the feeling of a TV-movie; the dialogue is often underwhelming, the photography flatter. But that shouldn’t suggest that it isn’t dramatically nuanced. The behind-the-scenes conceit is revealing revealing, and the performances are fantastic, never stooping to parody like they so easily could. Moore gives one of her greatest performances, transforming herself so thoroughly that we forget that we’re watching Julianne Moore playing Sarah Palin and not Sarah Palin being Sarah Palin. Harrelson is excellent as the flustered, guilt-ridden Schmidt. And Paulson, superbly restrained, impresses as a woman who refrains from losing her cool so frequently we can only want to pass her a decorative pillow just so she can scream her frustrations away somewhere.
Of course, we still see Sarah Palin and let out a sigh of relief that she isn’t currently a breath away from running the country — but Game Change is immensely successful because we are able to authentically see a controversial person from an entirely new angle. If we weren’t convinced, Game Change wouldn’t be such a good TV-movie. Thank God it’s good at convincing. B