12:01am

Thu March 8, 2012
Monkey See

On HBO, A Bestselling Book Becomes A Movie About A 'Dynamic Moment'

There were a lot of good stories from the 2008 presidential election, including Hillary Clinton's serious run for the Democratic nomination, not to mention the election of the first African-American president. The whole story was covered in the bestselling — and controversial — book by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, Game Change.

On HBO on Saturday, the film Game Change focuses on the failed presidential candidacy of Sen. John McCain and especially on his best asset and most unpredictable weakness: his running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska. It's worth watching as a prequel to the election we're watching right now.

As a political nerd, I loved seeing Game Change's details on how candidates are coached for debates and interviews.

In one session on a campaign bus, campaign manager Steve Schmidt, played by Woody Harrelson, asks Palin a question about British support for the Iraq War. She responds by talking about the relationship with the queen and seems surprised when Schmidt tells her that the head of the British government isn't the queen, it's the prime minister.

As Palin prepares for more interviews and a debate, it becomes clear to the campaign staff that she doesn't understand a lot of basic policy issues, even as crowds love her and respond to her charisma.

A group of past and present Palin aides have already denounced the film. But the filmmakers say their script uses the book and their own interviews with more than two dozen Republicans who worked on the campaign. That's where they found the anecdote about the queen of England.

And the film often humanizes Palin. She connects with crowds, especially families with special-needs children, and ends up handling the debate better than the campaign aides thought she would. Even when her emotional problems led McCain and Schmidt to have a doctor secretly observe her at a party, he came to a simple conclusion: For a woman who just had a baby, has a son in Iraq and a pregnant teenage daughter, she's doing pretty well.

Julianne Moore is remarkable as Palin. She mimicks Palin's distinct speaking pattern, while avoiding a Tina Fey-style parody.

Still, Palin fans won't enjoy scenes where she fumbles facts or presses McCain aides to lie about her background. And you could ask why HBO is rehashing a 4-year-old failure just as the GOP is trying to retake the White House.

In the end, Palin's rise energized a deeply conservative wing of the Republican Party, which has kept this year's GOP primary in play. And the desire to bring Palin into the McCain campaign as a charismatic game-changer reflects an attitude that is present in this year's election, especially when you consider that Donald Trump was considered to be a real possibility for the Republican race.

"We live in the age of YouTube and the 24-hour news cycle," Schmidt tells McCain to convince him to bring Palin onboard. "We need to create a dynamic moment in this campaign or we're dead." Turns out, their dynamic moment wasn't enough to win the White House.

Eric Deggans is the TV and media critic for the Tampa Bay Times.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Political junkies have been anticipating this film for months and months. On Saturday, HBO debuts "Game Change." That's the film about the failed presidential candidacy of Senator John McCain. Much of the anticipation is over the portrayal of McCain's running mate, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. Here's TV critic Eric Deggans.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: There were a lot of good stories from the 2008 presidential election, but the film "Game Change" focuses on John McCain's best asset and most unpredictable weakness.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "GAME CHANGE")

JULIANNE MOORE: (As Sarah Palin) Senator, I am honored to be chosen as your running mate.

DEGGANS: That's not Sarah Palin four years ago. That's "Game Change" star Julianne Moore.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "GAME CHANGE")

MOORE: (As Sarah Palin) It turns out the women of America aren't finished yet, and we can shatter that glass ceiling once and for all.

DEGGANS: It's a remarkable performance. Moore mimics Palin's distinct speaking pattern, while avoiding a Tina Fey-style parody. As a political nerd, I love seeing "Game Change's" details on how candidates are coached for debates and interviews. In this session, Woody Harrelson as campaign manager Steve Schmidt discovers a problem while asking practice questions on the campaign bus.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "GAME CHANGE")

WOODY HARRELSON: (As Steve Schmidt) How do you plan on maintaining our alliance with Great Britain on Iraq, even though support for the war there is at an all-time low?

MOORE: (As Sarah Palin) I think the United States has always maintained a great relationship with the queen. And John McCain will continue to have an open dialogue with her.

HARRELSON: (As Steve Schmidt) Governor, the queen is not the head of government in England. She's the head of state.

MOORE: (As Sarah Palin) Well then, who's the head of government?

HARRELSON: (As Steve Schmidt) The prime minister.

DEGGANS: A group of Palin's past and current aides have already denounced the film, which presents an emotionally fragile candidate unprepared for the job she's seeking. But the filmmakers say their script uses the book and their own interviews with more than two dozen Republicans who worked on the campaign. That's where they found that anecdote about the queen of England.

And they often humanize Palin. Even when her emotional problems led McCain and Schmidt to have a doctor secretly observe her at a party, he came to a simple conclusion.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "GAME CHANGE")

HARRELSON: (As Steve Schmidt) How's she look?

DAN DESMOND: (As Dr. Ollie) For a woman who's just had a baby, has a pregnant teen daughter and a son in Iraq, I'd say not half bad.

DEGGANS: Still, Palin fans won't enjoy the scenes where she fumbles facts or presses McCain aides to lie about her background. And you could ask why HBO's rehashing a four-year-old failure, just as the GOP is trying to retake the White House today.

But what "Game Change" also shows is how celebrity can eclipse knowledge in today's 24/7 political news culture. Remember, we actually thought Donald Trump seemed a possible candidate for this year's primary. HBO's film explains how the search for star power led McCain and Schmidt to choose Palin in the first place.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "GAME CHANGE")

HARRELSON: (As Steve Schmidt) We live in the age of YouTube and the 24-hour news cycle. How else do you think a man who has absolutely no major life accomplishments is beating an American hero? We need to create a dynamic moment in this campaign, or we're dead.

DEGGANS: In the end, Palin's rise energized a deeply conservative wing of the Republican Party, which has kept this year's GOP primary in play. HBO's "Game Change" feels like a prequel for the election we're experiencing right now. And regardless of party affiliation, that's the kind of movie I wouldn't mind watching anytime.

INSKEEP: Eric Deggans is the TV and media critic for the Tampa Bay Times. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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