Ellen Gray: 'Game Change' and 'The Undefeated' take two different looks at Sarah Palin

Julianne Moore (left) and Ed Harris star as Sarah Palin and John McCain in HBO's "Game Change."
Julianne Moore (left) and Ed Harris star as Sarah Palin and John McCain in HBO's "Game Change." (PHILLIP V. CARUSO)
Posted: March 09, 2012

WHEN IT COMES to television and Sarah Palin, there is no winning.

There is also no losing.

This weekend, just a few days after the former Alaska governor told a CNN reporter who'd staked out her Super Tuesday polling place in Wasilla, Alaska, that "anything is possible," even a Palin draft at the Republican convention, she's the focus of two very different TV portrayals.

In one corner, we have HBO's "Game Change," the elite liberal media entry you've probably heard about that stars Julianne Moore as Palin, Ed Harris as John McCain and Woody Harrelson as McCain adviser Steve Schmidt. Palin, who's reportedly seen only the trailer, has already denounced it as "Hollywood lies."

In the other, we have ReelzChannel's presentation of the 2011 documentary "The Undefeated," a chronicle from filmmaker Stephen K. Bannon ("Battle for America") of Palin's rise from young wife and mother to candidate for vice president of the United States.

(Last year, ReelzChannel picked up "The Kennedys" after the History Channel backed away from the miniseries amid speculation that it wasn't a shiny enough portrait of a family that's seen its share of scandal.)

If there are lies in "The Undefeated," they're probably not of the Hollywood variety, since it was inspired by Palin's own book, Going Rogue: An American Life and uses chunks of the audiobook version - read by Palin - as voice-over. (She doesn't appear to have been interviewed for it, however.)

The talking heads, who include Internet firebrand Andrew Breitbart, have nothing but good things to say about the ex-governor, her critics having been relegated to brief, ugly mashups of actors, comics and others behaving badly toward Palin.

"Game Change" - based in part on a book about the 2008 presidential campaign by journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin - portrays Palin as obsessed with her popularity in Alaska and "The Undefeated" is also rooted there. Which makes for some great scenery.

Bannon, though, could use a lighter touch. It's fun to see what he might do next - I particularly liked the colorful flying arrows and the shot of a man dressed like a Crusader lying with one sticking out of his neck, used to illustrate what it felt like to have Palin's staff "besieged" by nuisance ethics complaints - but "The Undefeated" actually seems to want to be taken seriously.

"Game Change," written by Danny Strong and directed by Jay Roach, the same team behind HBO's hanging-chad memoir "Recount," isn't a comedy, either.

While the book looked behind the scenes in the Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John McCain campaigns (and painted some less-than-flattering pictures of each), Strong's script skips ahead, beginning with the process that led McCain to pluck a relatively unknown governor as his running mate and goes on to recount the story you may only think you know.

Moore, who spent 2 1/2 hours a day in makeup to deliver a performance that's much more than an impersonation, seems to have found some common ground with Palin, who comes off more sympathetically than some might expect (though I doubt she - or any politician - would appreciate a dramatization of her meltdowns, however well-researched).

The actress said she'd learned things about the 2008 campaign that she hadn't realized before.

"I think the amount of pressure that she was under and all the different voices coming at her, I think that was incredibly challenging and that was something that we were not aware of, I think, the American public, was just that she was sequestered. Basically, she was only allowed to talk to certain media outlets," said Moore after an HBO press conference in January.

"She started to feel like everything she said was prescribed; she didn't understand why they had brought her in as a vice presidential candidate for her abilities and then not let her use them."

And then there was the infamous wardrobe debacle.

"I certainly wasn't aware that people are educated, dressed, made up. You know, that's much more like what we do in our business, right? Seems much more like show business," Moore said of a scene that puts that incident in some perspective.

"I thought the wardrobe thing was extremely overblown," Strong said. "I think it was, you know, a little sexist. Men's suits can be extremely expensive and people aren't commenting on who's wearing Armani and who's wearing Prada."

If the story about Palin's wardrobe makeover hadn't been so widespread at the time, "we probably wouldn't have had it in the film at all. But because it was such a big news story, we couldn't just avoid it. And it's literally, what, 45 seconds in the movie," said Strong, who wasn't able to interview Palin or McCain but did draw from Going Rogue, one of the books Moore also read to prepare.

Also, Strong spoke with "25 people intimately involved in the campaign, including the most senior advisers," according to a letter sent out by HBO this week to answer criticism from Palin and her supporters.

I can't imagine that's going to make a difference.

"I don't think this movie is going to change people's minds one way or the other. I think people are just locked in how they feel" about Palin, the writer told reporters in January.

Strong, who's also an actor - he's best known for recurring roles on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Gilmore Girls," on which he played Paris' boyfriend - had his first encounter with online "nastiness" while reading comments in "Buffy" forums years ago.

Writing about politics only makes it worse.

"There are certain people - by the way, in both parties - they're not out for the truth, they just have an agenda," he said.

"They're like lawyers representing a client and so their job is to try and discredit anything that contradicts the agenda or the narrative they have. And on 'Recount,' I was surprised at just some of the left-wing sites, the left-wing liberal bloggers that attacked the film over certain things they were pissed about.

"But the things that they were pissed about, they weren't true. But in their minds, not in an insane way, but they'd created, they believed, certain talking points that were, in fact, inaccurate, and when the film didn't represent those talking points because they weren't accurate, they lambasted it."


Contact Ellen Gray at graye@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @elgray. Read her blog at EllenGray.tv.

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