Monday, November 19, 2012

Paragraph Movie Reviews: Game Change

If you don't have plans to see this movie, you can check the spoilers here and then come back.

My first thought after watching this docu-drama (Would this be classified a documentary? It was listed as one on my cable box, but can documentaries be dramatized almost in full?) about the 2008 presidential election focusing on the McCain campaign and specifically Sarah Palin's role wasn't whether it was good or whether it was bad, but whether or not it was accurate; ultimately, I could have enjoyed and appreciated it regardless, but I would no doubt view it differently if it was a hatchet job. Megan was equally curious and looked into it enough to know that Sarah Palin and John McCain refuse to see it and have denounced the book on which it was based as inaccurate, but pretty much everybody else depicted seems to say it was pretty spot on, so I'll choose to assume it was. With that out of the way, it's a riveting piece of work, with the screen play by Danny Strong (Jonathan from Buffy! He won an Emmy!) condensing several months into a two hour piece that doesn't feel like it glosses over any major events but moves briskly and keeps you engaged. It's really impressive work from Strong who obviously gets politics and the news cycle (there is fascinating insight into how modern media affects a campaign that I felt like I should have known but didn't) and avoids many of the traps documentary makers fall into falling too in love with particular moments and shafting others in the process. I was similarly impressed with director Jay Roach's approach to handling the real life interviews, debates and so on by combining archival footage of Barack Obama, Katie Couric and others with his actors, not detracting from the figures who were the focus of the film by stunt casting major cameos. As for those actors, it's a stacked deck from top to bottom with not a weak link in the principal cast. Julianne Moore has the heady challenge of playing a memorable public figure who had not only herself had extensive media exposure, but had already been memorably mimicked by the likes of Tina Fey; Moore rises to her performance, not making Palin one note or relying on her familiar mannerisms and catchphrases, but using those as the building blocks of a far more complex woman. Moore's Palin isn't just an idiot who makes us laugh, she's sympathetic as a public servant who wants to do good thrown in over her head, but then progressively alarming as a person who becomes drunk on her own overnight success and realization of how far she can go on charisma alone. Indeed the movie is in large part about how close rhetoric and being able to say the right thing the right way at the right moment--in short, putting on a good performance--can get a person to the top, and Moore's eerie performance as a woman who swings from complete control to almost childlike tantrums and back as she needs to underlines the point in a frankly terrifying way. Ed Harris is featured less, but equally compelling, showing John McCain as a good and moral man who is qualified to lead the country, but comes to realize that won't be enough to get him elected President; Harris portrays McCain with the genuine decency he possesses and his performance breaks your heart a little as you see the compromises he feels forced to make. Playing Republican strategist Steve Schmidt, Woody Harrelson has a somewhat different role, as he's not portraying a political layman would know, but he delivers a knockout emotional performance as well as serving up exposition that doesn't feel tacked on as far as explaining why Palin was chosen and what goes into other moves made by the McCain campaign as the movie progresses. The game supporting cast is led by Peter MacNicol as campaign manager Rick Davis--desperation in his eyes at every turn, great sigh of relief/stand up and cheer reactions every time something goes well--and Sarah Paulson as Nicolle Wallace, a Palin aide, doing fine work as an increasingly skeptical Palin booster who realizes what's going on before everybody else and gets two of the film's most memorable moments in my view. Coming full circle, whether Game Change is 100% or even 85% accurate is, I suppose, inconsequential, as it's a smart, well-written, well-directed and well-acted film with something to say about how the political process on all sides has been swallowed up by wanting to win trumping wanting to better the country in too many instances, and how seeming right can get you further than doing right.