Old game, new rules

Monday January 21, 2013

Alden Graves

There is no better source for finely-crafted entertainment than HBO, and I’m including output from the major Hollywood studios in that sweeping statement. A quick look at some of the superlative programs that HBO has produced over the years should offer enough evidence to convince the most hardened big studio partisan: "The Sopranos," "Deadwood," "Rome," "Six Feet Under," "Game of Thrones," and "Boardwalk Empire."

Last year, HBO adapted a best selling book by Mark Halperin, a political analyst and editor for Time magazine, called "Game Change." It was an insider’s look at the 2008 presidential race mostly from the perspective of John McCain’s campaign. Halperin was granted extraordinarily broad access to the most intimate workings of a major political event as it evolved and provided his readers with a uniquely informed account of it. "Game Change" emerged as a riveting cliffhanger even if everyone knew who toppled over the edge at fade out time.

On the face of it, 2008 should have been a slam-dunk for the Republicans as long as they could manage to shift voters’ attention away from the detritus that George W. Bush was leaving as his legacy to the nation. W. was the elephant in the phone booth that everyone was trying to ignore and the game plan, as far as GOP advisers were concerned, was pointed and simple: summon memories of Mr. Bush as infrequently as possible.

Arizona senator John McCain was rich, white, and he didn’t make any effort to discourage - even in an endearing "aw shucks" kind of way - the perception that he was an American hero. If that wasn’t the stuff to provide a yellow brick road into the Oval Office, then the bedrock upon which politics had been founded for centuries had suddenly shifted alarmingly. Besides, the hero’s challenger was some egghead Illinois congressman hardly anyone had ever heard of and he was - you’ll excuse the expression - a black guy.

It became quite apparent early on that the bedrock had shifted and it is upon the shaky ground that Mr. McCain encountered that the HBO movie begins.

McCain (Ed Harris) wanted Connecticut senator Joe Lieberman (Austin Penderton) as a running mate and what McCain wanted, he usually got. But that wasn’t the case with Lieberman, a quixotic and unpredictable legislator who would, assured chief campaign advisor Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson), alienate much of McCain’s conservative base. Joe was a no-go.

Schmidt told McCain that, to bolster up his lagging campaign, he needed to break away from the general perception that the hierarchy of the Republican Party was comprised of rich white guys - even if it was perfectly true. Dispelling the stereotype was just as important as pleasing the base and there was the "heartbeat away" factor to consider, too.

Sen. Liebermann was Jewish and that was a little too far afield for the far right, but they might not react so negatively to a woman on the ticket. Hillary Clinton, after all, had almost succeeded in becoming the opposition’s candidate for president.

Sen. McCain’s men looked around. Every woman they considered was toting some baggage that cast a pall upon her suitability. Someone happened on the name of the recently-elected governor of Alaska. She seemed to have a potential for molding, the vast extent that would be necessary remained unknown until it was too late.

"This is Sarah," she answered on her cell phone while strolling through a small fairground with her kids. The rest, of course, is history.

If you approach "Game Change" with the expectation that it will vilify its major players, you are going to be disappointed. McCain’s presidential race was marked more by desperation than it was by any devious intent. Even as his ambitions were dissipating, there were certain lines (Obama’s involvement with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright being one of them) that he would not allow to be crossed, to his great credit.

The movie implies that Sen. McCain had very little to do with Palin’s selection as a running mate. He relied upon the advice of Schmidt and a few others in his inner circle. It soon became apparent that, despite her cover girl exterior, they had intertwined their fates with woman woefully unqualified for the office that she was seeking. There was too little time to adequately coach someone who thought that any disagreements that America might encounter with Great Britain could be resolved during chummy chats with the queen. Soon the entire campaign degenerated to a succession of highly publicized gaffes and ineffectual damage control that defeated even Mr. Schultz’ wizardly ability to create an attractive candidate.

Palin, who displayed a genuine sympathy for what, at least in her estimation, were core American values, suffered relentless ridicule from the media. She isolated herself from the rest of the campaign, becoming so embittered people began to question her sanity. Palin opted, finally, to do things her own way, to sell herself as a "rogue" -- to the abject horror of everyone else.

"Game Change" is a contemporary political movie in a league with Otto Preminger’s "Advise and Consent" and Franklin Schaffner’s "The Best Man." It is potent without being hysterical and acted by a uniformly fine cast, particularly Ms. Moore. Her Sarah Palin is no cutesy imitation and there isn’t a hint of condescension in the performance. Moore was faced with the daunting task of making a sympathetic figure out of a woman who, in real life, always seemed to be something of a caricature and she accomplished it brilliantly.

Alden Graves is a Banner columnist and reviewer.


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