If there's anything new to be said about her flimsy candidacy, HBO's Game Change can't find it.
The most puzzling thing about Game Change, HBO's handsome and richly cast but strangely inert adaptation of the book of the same name by New York's John Heilemann and Time's Mark Halperin, is that it's focused on the selection of Sarah Palin to be John McCain's vice presidential candidate. Palin was supposed to be the game changer in the race between John McCain and Barack Obama, but she didn't turn out to be much of one. Her influence was more cosmetic than results-altering.
The movie could have been about how antagonism between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton gradually turned into a powerful partnership. But perhaps HBO felt like that would have amounted to a campaign ad in an election year; it reportedly rejected an initial script that focused on Clinton and Obama before turning to Palin. Game Change could have chronicled the fascinating, baroque recklessness of John and Elizabeth Edwards, who proceeded with the race in spite of her cancer diagnosis and the fact that he was carrying on an extraordinarily stupid affair with a campaign hanger-on. But then Game Change would have been competing with Aaron Sorkin's adaptation of The Candidate, the memoir of Andrew Young, the Edwards staffer who initially took the fall for the affair. And so we're stuck with Palin, the least interesting figure of the lot. What's worse is that Game Change opts to paint a familiar and unattractive portrait of Palin instead of asking hard questions of the people on both sides of the line she drew through American politics.
It's difficult to remember now, but when McCain's selection of Palin as his running mate launched her onto the national scene that summer, the initial predictions for her future career, no matter the results of that campaign, were astronomical. Her rejection of the so-called Bridge to Nowhere was supposed to make her that rarest of political creatures, a genuine anti-waste conservative—until she turned out to be for the bridge before she was against it. Her experience as governor of a major oil and gas-producing state was supposed to make her a major force in energy policy—but the analysis she had to offer rarely rose above the level of "Drill, baby, drill." Perhaps her most interesting act as a public servant was her last. Palin's resignation from the governorship of Alaska, unprompted by scandal or illness, was an almost unprecedented act, the rare admission by a politician that elected office is not the ultimate prize.
Instead of following up that surprising move with something genuinely interesting or innovative, or even that had any sort of impact, Palin's subsequent career has been decidedly common—at least by the standards of the American media industry. She followed in the path of Republicans recently evicted from office everywhere and signed a contract to be a commentator for Fox News. She produced some not-particularly-highly rated specials for the network. TLC created a series called Sarah Palin's Alaska, which chronicled her shooting Fox segments in her at-home studio and going camping with the epitome of reality television embarrassment, Kate Gosselin. Palin's daughter Bristol made the standard Z-list celebrity stop on Dancing With the Stars and now is starring in her own reality series, Life's a Tripp. It's a long fall from would-be revolutionizer of the American political system to a sidebar slot on gossip magazine covers, but it's hardly an unprecedented fall.
The most interesting thing about Palin turns out to have been the way that we reacted to her: Why were people so eager to project hopes onto her flimsy candidacy? Now that she's gone down to irrelevance, why does she inspire so much rage from the people who defeated her or who have come to regard her as unqualified? Game Change (premiering Saturday at 9 p.m.), even if it doesn't realize it, has a partial answer to the second question: It's a matter of shame for the people who presented her as a serious candidate in the first place. In her initial conversation with McCain's aides on the way down from Alaska for vetting conversations, Palin's a bright, cheery blank when she tells them "I have a servant's heart, and if you really think I can help this campaign, if you really think I can help this country, I'm with you." The movie isn't interested in exploring how her faith motivates her, or how evangelicals frame the world around them.
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Instead, it's all about how McCain's advisers, set up as proxies for the audience, react to that line; or to Palin's declaration the basic world geography she's just then learning is "flippin' awesome"; or to the sight of Palin near-catatonic in a conference room, rocking back and forth, muttering "Fat. I'm so sick of looking fat." Most of the time, with the response is contempt or condescension. Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson), the McCain adviser who is the nominal main character of the movie, tells Palin, "This goofy diet is bad for you, and I'm alarmed by your weight loss," before giving up on actually trying to teach her anything about the issues. In one scene, Palin flings a phone at adviser Nicolle Wallace (Sarah Paulson) in a stairwell, screaming "You have ruined me! You have ruined my reputation, I am ruined in Alaska!" By setting the outburst to a horror movie score, Game Change telegraphs only that Palin's a freak—not that, in a tough campaign, she might have had legitimate concerns about her political future.
And perhaps there's nothing there to contemplate. Maybe Palin was as difficult, and as mercurial, and as fundamentally empty as Game Change makes her out to be. But if that's true, it's a story we've heard retold hundreds of times, in hundreds of thousands of words, over the last four years. At the end of Game Change, when Nicolle Wallace's dramatic admission that she didn't vote is played as some sort of moral victory, it's clear that the movie isn't interested in figuring out what actually happened in 2008. Instead, it merely participates the tired, self-satisfied celebration of the country's collective decision not to let That Woman anywhere near the White House.