Dir. Jay Roach
(2012, Not Rated, 118 min)

From the creative team that made the excellent docudrama Recount – writer Danny Strong and director Jay RoachGame Change feels like the continuation of a theme: the ruthless, churning mechanism of politics, especially during an election campaign, is really just high-stakes poker mixed with advanced chess. It’s marketing, maneuvering, betting, branding, advertising, image-tailoring, and digestible soundbites. Politics, they posit, is not at all about governance but about winning.

I can’t attest to the factual accuracy of Game Change. It’s portrayal of the 2008 Republican presidential campaign is not flattering and goes into some detail about not only the key events of the campaign but also the emotions and motivations of its players. I can only say that it’s a good portrayal, which uses former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin (Julianne Moore) to explore how national politics can run roughshod over a person. You might hope to change the system, or even just participate in it, but entering the system changes you. One of the best dramatizations of this I’ve seen was on The Wire, also on HBO, where an idealistic mayoral candidate campaigned and won on a platform of ending corruption, only to find that the only way to get anything done is to go along with it.

The Palin portrayed by this film is naïve about the challenges of a national campaign, and like those around her she underestimates how little she knows about national policy. But it’s not an entirely unsympathetic view. She is flustered, overwhelmed, batted around between impersonal advisers, and she watches a fun house-mirror reflection of herself from Tina Fey on TV every day. We feel sympathy for her because she is exactly what the John McCain campaign wanted her to be: a political outsider.

Woody Harrelson, as Steve Schmidt

Throughout, Moore is excellent, doing a believable impression of Palin’s appearance and mannerisms but also giving a full, lived-in portrayal of earnest conviction, anxiety, and self-doubt.

Then comes a change, and the film brings it on too abruptly. From overwhelmed small-town girl she transforms into Norma Desmond, corrupted not by the gamesmanship of politics but by its spotlight. Insecure about her own popularity, she first cracks under the pressure and then absorbs it with narcissistic fervor. Because the shift is so sudden, it seems too much like a caricature when she goes “rogue” on the campaign trail, refusing to heed the counsel of her handlers. She is big, you see. It’s the election that got small.

The film is at its best when it’s personal, when considering how individual human beings approach the leviathan of an election campaign. Woody Harrelson co-stars as Steve Schmidt, a senior campaign strategist for McCain (Ed Harris). He’s a savvy political operator who picks Palin because of her demographic appeal and to draw attention from Barack Obama‘s historic presidential bid. He is cynical about the process, cheering for Palin when she delivers a pre-scripted answer that looks and sounds good on TV, but when she starts to enjoy the attention he starts to wonder whether the right strategy is always the same as the right decision. When all is said and done, Schmidt seems to regret his choice, but we’re not sure whether it’s because Palin was wrong for the job or because he couldn’t control her.

Sarah Paulson plays communications adviser Nicolle Wallace, who expresses the audience’s surprise and dismay as she prepares Palin for what she is clearly unprepared for. She knows how to play the game, but she, more than the others, wonders if winning is always worth it. There’s a heartbreaking moment late in the film when she confesses on election night that she couldn’t bring herself to vote for anyone, and we feel both the shame in her confession and the loss of civic pride that it represents.

In that way, politics is kind of like a hot dog. It tastes fine until you know what’s in it, and then you don’t want it anymore.