There can’t be much doubt that HBO’s Sarah Palin movie Game Change, which debuts March 10, gives the former governor the beatdown of a lifetime. Somewhere, the shade of Richard Nixon is cringing and saying, “Yikes. At least they credited me with basic intelligence.”
As played by Julianne Moore with an overly heavy midwestern accent and a dazed expression, Palin is seen being ignorant of what World War II was about and not understanding that the prime minister of Great Britain, not the queen, is the head of government.
Famously, Palin seemed lost for an answer when asked by Katie Couric to name a single newspaper she read (instead answering, as though this were possible, “all of them”). But even assuming she’s a rank illiterate — wouldn’t she have come across a few TV shows and movies that could have told her about the Allies and the Axis? Didn’t she see Hugh Grant playing the prime minister in Love, Actually? Could Palin have ever been elected grade-school hall monitor, much less governor of her state, if she were such a ninny?
Weekly Standard editor Fred Barnes is on record as saying he was “struck by how smart Palin was” when he and a boatload of other conservative pundits visited Alaska in 2007. Moreover, Palin has been a public figure for the better part of a decade now, and acquitted herself ably enough in her debate with Joe Biden, which led to no memorable gaffes. How did she pull that off if she’s such a mental midget?
According to Game Change, whose major source is apparently John McCain’s campaign strategist Steve Schmidt, she did it by borrowing some genius from…Steve Schmidt. Schmidt (played by an increasingly furious Woody Harrelson) is seen giving up on Palin’s ability to master policy details and deciding to simply supply her with 25 answers to the questions she’d be asked at the sole 2008 vice presidential debate. Reasoning that she was a great actress, he ordered her not to think but simply to memorize the answers. But could he really have predicted what questions were coming?
Even those who aren’t Palin fans may find Moore’s portrayal broad and harsh, though it allows her a few thrilling moments. The famous Republican convention speech in which Palin became an instant superstar (despite losing the services of her teleprompter) is treated with the awe it deserves, and a scene in which Palin is shown making a real connection with citizens afflicted with Down Syndrome shows off her magical personal touch.
The film is on shaky ground in ways other than its portrayal of Palin’s intelligence, however. HBO is a notably liberal outlet, and there is a bizarre subtext woven throughout in which Palin is seen as the unfortunate impediment to a nationwide agreement that Barack Obama in particular and liberalism in general are really nifty things. A Republican speechwriter (Sarah Paulson) who comes to despise Palin seems to be a fan of Hillary Clinton. John McCain (Ed Harris) is shown trying to rustle up support by reluctantly giving into his demons and going negative (as if Obama didn’t spend massively on attack ads!) and then withdrawing in revulsion as the people seem on the verge of forming a lynch mob. Harris’s McCain is portrayed as a basically decent guy who is willing to cut an ethical corner or two to win, but finally more or less concedes that Obama’s victory is fine.
If HBO were being completely honest, instead of giving a pass to Obama, Biden, and Hillary Clinton (none of whom is portrayed by actors in the film, though they are occasionally seen in news footage) and dramatizing every sordid anecdote about Palin, it would make a miniseries that tells the whole story of Game Change, the book by reporters Mark Halperin and John Heilemann that covered the 2008 campaign, not just Palin’s foibles (which take up only a few pages). In the book, Bill Clinton tells Ted Kennedy, “The only reason you’re endorsing him is because he’s black, let’s just be clear.” Obama is heard saying, “Why the f— am I going to Indiana?” and (in 2004) “There’s not much of difference between my position on Iraq and George Bush’s position at this stage.” One of Hillary Clinton’s most senior advisers thinks, after one near-breakdown, “This woman shouldn’t be president.” Harry Reid says Obama has “no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”
Hillary is shown saying of Obama, “What an a–hole. Am I the only one who sees the arrogance?” She also says, of the Obama-McCain matchup, “I hate the choice that the country’s faced with. I think it is a terrible choice for our nation.” Later she is seen mentioning to aides that she’d heard Obama’s mother was a communist.
In the film, angry members of crowds at McCain rallies are heard yelling, “He’s a socialist!” and we are meant to think that irrational anger on the part of bitter (and probably racist) Republicans has been Obama’s principal problem ever since. But once you start down the road of mistaking name-calling and gossip for news, you can keep going indefinitely.