Last Saturday evening, HBO premiered the docudrama film Game Change based on the non-fiction book by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. The only reason I refer to the film as docudrama is that actors played the primary characters in the film but you might as well have been watching a documentary. The book focused on the 2008 presidential race from both the Democratic and Republican perspectives. The film makers chose to focus on the juicier of the two stories, the selection of Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running mate and the disaster that ensued from that selection.
Those who claim this is fiction or a Palin hatchet job simply don’t know what they’re talking about. The film tracks very closely to the book which was well sourced and painstakingly detailed. What stands out for me is that when two key McCain campaign operatives, Steve Schmidt and Nicolle Wallace are asked about the film, they both say it is like living through the events all over again. For those who say these sources have an axe to grind and that others close to the McCain campaign call the book and film bunk, I say look where the different witnesses to history sit now. Both Schmidt and Wallace have essentially left politics and have nothing to lose from telling the truth. Those who call the film bunk are still playing the game and can’t afford to endanger their standing. McCain himself has called Schmidt’s defense of the film “unfortunate” but that is completely consistent with the John McCain portrayed in the film and the John McCain we’ve seen since 2008. McCain considers it a matter of honor and loyalty to never speak ill of Palin. To his credit, he has never violated his code on this.
As for the film being a hatchet job on Palin, that is simply wishful thinking for the Palin-as-victim brigade. As a backdrop, let’s start with the following fact. Wasilla is not New York City and Alaska is not California. So, comparing the Mayor of Wasilla to Michael Bloomberg or the Governor of Alaska to Jerry Brown is absurd. With that understood, out of the blue Sarah Palin, the Governor of Alaska, with no national reputation, gets a call from the McCain campaign to be his Vice Presidential running mate. Can you imagine how overwhelming that is? The film portrays Palin in just that way, a woman immersed in local/regional issues raising a large family who is suddenly thrust into not just the national spotlight but the world spotlight.
If there is any villain in Game Change it is the McCain campaign machine which took this leader of a remote state and tried to transform her overnight into a worldly, savvy stateswoman. Steve Schmidt has said that the choice of Palin was the intersection of loyalty and ambition. It was a matter of loyalty to McCain to do whatever it took to make him competitive and a matter of ambition to win at all costs. The notion of picking a VP nominee on the basis that she might be President one day didn’t even occur to the McCain staff until they learned how far off Palin was from being ready. Their top priority was shaking things up to catapult McCain over Obama. Palin was basically their prop. In a scene that rings true, Palin screams at Nicolle Wallace over the phone “I am not your puppet.” Her frustration was understandable after the team had literally dressed her and fed her the lines they wanted her to say.
The press and the media don’t get a free ride in Game Change either. Their interest in everything from TrooperGate to when exactly Palin’s water broke during her son’s birth is portrayed as over the top. We see how the invasive inquiry and the mocking from the likes of Tina Fey, take Palin by surprise and make her understandably hurt and angry.
To some extent, Game Change the movie is about what happens when an independent woman gets sucked into a male dominated world where she will be a strategic piece in a puzzle she has no control over. It is also a cautionary tale about campaigns that don’t operate in the country’s best interest. It is telling that Nicolle Wallace was so unnerved by Sarah Palin’s unreadiness for the job that Wallace did not vote in the election. Although loyal to McCain, she just could not put Palin one heart beat from the Presidency.