Game-changing Palin, armed and dangerous

Posted: March 08, 2012

TV Review

Game Change

9 p.m. Saturday on HBO.

In the political docudrama Game Change, Sarah Palin is dealing with the whirlwind of being named John McCain's running mate in 2008 with unearthly assurance.

Until, that is, she sees Tina Fey spoofing her on Saturday Night Live. Seeing herself held up as an object of ridicule on national TV plunges the Game Change Palin into a bitter spiral of withdrawal and anger.

Thanks a lot, Tina!

The real-life Palin, now a commentator for Fox News, has already expressed her ire with this HBO film. No wonder.

She's being impersonated with far greater artistry here (by Julianne Moore, who is spooky good as Palin), and though the intent of Game Change is not comedic, the portrait that emerges is, if anything, more unflattering.

The film, which HBO will telecast Saturday night at 9, begins with McCain (Ed Harris) mounting a comeback in a contentious Republican primary race (sound familiar?) with the help of his campaign adviser Steve Schmidt (a bald Woody Harrelson).

In the general election, the most salient disadvantage McCain faces against Barack Obama is a sizable gender gap. So Schmidt's team (primarily Peter MacNicol and Jamey Sheridan) search for a bold trifecta: a woman who is outside the Beltway and will satisfy the Republican Party's conservative base.

They're convinced they have found her in pro-life Alaska governor and moose hunter Sarah Palin.

"This is a woman with a gun," crows an operative to McCain. "Come on, John. The base will be doing backflips."

After an abbreviated vetting session, the lawyer who conducts background checks for McCain describes her to the senator as "high risk, high reward." So everyone holds hands and jumps off the cliff together. Look out, below.

Director Jay Roach rather seamlessly combines genuine news and TV footage with re-created scenes. Obama, for instance, is seen often, but never portrayed by an actor.

The dramatic re-creations are somewhat uneven: The convention staging is quite convincing, the campaign trail less so. And be forewarned: The f-bomb is flung around so much in this film, you'll think you're watching an old episode of Deadwood.

At its heart, Game Change is a failed Pygmalion story, with Sarah Paulson playing the Henry Higgins character responsible for preparing Palin to face the ravening press.

This is the point at which Mrs. Palin may want to shut off the set to spare herself further embarrassment.

She's shown not only as lacking in foreign and domestic policy expertise, but also as sadly deficient in remedial geography and history.

So was Katie Couric playing Gotcha! or was Palin thrown in over her head? Who cares?

The interesting thing about Palin is her heady popular appeal. Game Change could have benefited greatly by exploring that charisma, by spending more time on the stump and less time in hotel rooms.

The film catalogs Palin's familiar warts without dwelling on her strong, somewhat scary Huey Long-like magnetism.

At one point, as she's growing increasingly frazzled prepping for her debate with Joe Biden, her husband Todd soothes her by saying, "Just be yourself."

No one, not Tina Fey, not even an actress as skilled as Moore, can pull that off like Palin.


Contact David Hiltbrand at 215-854-4552 or dhiltbrand@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @daveondemand_tv. Read his blog, "Dave on Demand," at www.philly.com/dod.

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