Game Change imparts little more than a case of déjà-vu. It’s a picture that is constructed with the sole interest of depicting events as they were, filtering out any true moments of emotional revelation. It’s an interesting yarn regardless, if not for the players involved. There’s something to be said about the hypnotic appeal of people like Sarah Palin or Rick Santorum – watching them control crowds the way they do with their absent-minded rhetoric has a chilling cult-aspect to it. And the fact that the picture develops tension by slowly unveiling Sarah Palin’s incompetence only serves to reinforce my own perception on her and her party’s rhetoric. Given that Game Change is largely a recreation of the 2008 Republican campaign, the picture functions more as a retreat to a complicated time, wherein an obscure governor seized her moment.
Game Change utilizes two of John McCain’s (Ed Harris) head advisors, Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson) and Nicole Wallace (Sarah Paulson) to establish its narrative arch. As Schmidt notes to his colleagues, the McCain campaign desperately needed a shot in the arm. Barack Obama was leading in polls and had movie star charisma and bravado to draw crowds. When selecting a vice presidential running mate, advisors dismissed the “safe” choice in Joe Liberman – it simply wasn’t going to shake anyone up. It’s when they discovered the Governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin (Julianne Moore) that the campaign would really gain traction.
Roach and writer Danny Strong adapted Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s book as a means of uniting the political circus with that of a Hollywood production. Advisors and campaign heads function in the same way as production designers or producers – it’s the candidates that are being marketed as stars. It’s an on-the-nose allegory that works despite its limitations. The problem unfortunately stems from the limited appeal of Jay Roach’s direction. He moves in the same sort of bland and rote manner that typically defines a Ron Howard picture. For a film that questions the star-quality of individuals like Sarah Palin and Barack Obama, it’s Game Change that depends on its actors to elevate the material. While I wasn’t quite as taken by Julianne Moore’s depiction of Palin - she mimics the woman, but has limited material to work with to make her anything more than a Tina Fey impersonation. Ed Harris’ work added a level of mysticism and reverence to John McCain, which gives the picture a dimension that it sorely needed. But it is Woody Harrelson who injects the picture with a sense of urgency. He provides the film with a measure of tension and drama that allows it to work. Game Change’s absence of anything remotely introspective on the gravity of misinformed rhetoric or misplaced importance on news media is a major foible, but at least it can be entertaining.