McCain's Oops Moment

Nothing quite so aptly conveys the charade of practiced authenticity in our national politics as the four-star hotel room on a long-slog campaign run—a mess of tasseled drapes, ample sofas, and crisp white sheets all straining in hollow imitation of home.
In what is one of the many huddles in hotel rooms such as this in HBO’s Game Change, which premiers this Saturday, March 10 on HBO, an (initially) pants-less John McCain, played by Ed Harris, talks with his senior campaign strategist, Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson) and campaign manager Rick Davis (the whiny-voiced Peter MacNicol of Ally McBeal fame) about the possibility of bringing Alaska Governor Sarah Palin onto the GOP ticket. To allay his candidate’s fears that the choice might be “too outside the box,” Schmidt lays out his reasoning, and coincidentally, the theme of the film:
Sir, we live in the age of YouTube and the 24-hour news cycle. How else do you think a man who has absolutely no major life accomplishments is beating an American hero by double digits? He’s simply sailing on his charisma and star power. We need to create a dynamic moment in this campaign, or we’re dead.

Enter Palin, the McCain team’s Death Star of charisma brought to challenge the cult of Obama celebrity. 

We first meet the GOP savior from the North, played by Julianne Moore, as she chats casually with a voter at an Alaska fair, dressed-down in an oversized hoodie, sporting curled bangs and a baby on her hip. This bucolic folksiness quickly gives way to a twilight drive through the Martian canyons of Sedona, Arizona—Palin on her way to a date with destiny. One superficial vetting and two days later, she is announced as McCain’s vice-presidential nominee. 

Things get off to a kicky start with the requisite clothes-trying-on montage (done to some toe-tapping Jo Dee Messina country tunes), as Palin and her family are made more presentable in expensive threads from Saks—“Love these Johnny Choos,” the governor enthuses, mangling the name of the iconic designer in an effort to convey her naïveté of big-city fetishes. The sartorial scandal that would later erupt when the media learned that the Republican National Committee had spent more than $150,000 on the clothes immediately springs to mind. Pretty soon, all the other oddities and unwelcome surprises of the 2008 campaign come flooding back as well. 

There is "Troopergate,” Todd Palin’s membership in the Alaska Independence Party, allegations of book-banning, Bristol’s pregnancy, and the “bridge to nowhere.” But the worst of it is the sinking realization on the part of Palin’s handlers that she doesn’t know much about anything outside of Alaska energy policy—simple geography included. Their dogged determination to cover up her shortcomings is what drives the movie—it’s a “the show must go on” mentality of the highest order and a telling glimpse into the forces at work in this world of khakis and blazers and junk food on the go. These are the unstylish D.C. cosmopolitans who pick our leaders, after all.   

Harrelson’s Schmidt, bald-headed and hawk-nosed, is a master spin machine, defending Palin with the passion of an acolyte in public but being privately appalled by her paranoia and attention-seeking. Palin’s obsession with Alaska poll numbers, erratic behavior with campaign staff, and fixation with celebrity snowball in such dramatic fashion over the course of the movie (and have been played up in TV promos featuring a dramatic stairwell scene in which Palin screams “I am not your puppet!”) that it’s easy to see why the real-life Palin has publicly condemned the movie, though she admits she has not seen it.

What saves the film from blunt-force sensationalism is its treatment of Palin’s fragility through the eyes of senior campaign adviser Nicolle Wallace, played by Sarah Paulson. Not that Paulson’s performance is particularly standout, especially next to Moore, who, while employing some fairly distracting, hammed-up hand gestures, provides a nuanced portrayal of Palin. Wallace’s position as another woman in the higher echelons of the campaign is powerful in and of itself, giving the audience a vehicle from which to view the full humanity of Sarah Palin.

With her frizzy blonde bob, measured tones, and time spent in the Bush White House, Wallace is the picture of studious accomplishment. She is also the first on the campaign to realize that Palin is woefully unprepared for the intellectual rigors of high public office (and we are assuming those exist). While shocked at the other woman’s knowledge deficit, she remains compassionate in dealing with Palin, holding back, at least for a time, her blunt assessment of the candidate’s shortcomings. Palin intuits this, grasping her handler’s hand moments before stepping on stage to give her speech at the Republican National Convention. It is in the hushed tones of sisterly compassion that Wallace responds with, “You’re gonna do great.”

But questions like, “Do you know the primary difference between the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq?" mark the beginning of the end of their camaraderie. Palin is hemmed in, palpably aware of the condescension of the smarter kids in the room. In what is the most affecting scene of the movie, Wallace, with growing desperation, tries to cajole Palin into prepping for her Katie Couric interview, while hair and makeup artists primp and pull at the increasingly insecure governor. The governor feels fat, hates the jacket, the lipstick, the hair, all despite the other women’s protestations—including Wallace's—in a believable projection of existential doubt. There isn’t a woman in the world who won’t know how Palin feels in that moment. 

Less convincingly depicted is Ed Harris’s John McCain. Perhaps he’s been ruined by years of playing noble astronauts, but Harris fails to imbue the famously self-important senator with sufficiently asshole-ish tendencies. None of the pathos or hubristic confidence that come with the conviction of thinking you can run for president is properly displayed. That he is detached from the whole Palin debacle is clear, but one wishes that he had at least one profanity-laced bout of vitriol directed at Schmidt. Instead, he’s fatherly and forgiving. 

While questions of the celebrity and spectacle of politics are what Game Change aims to answer, the system of power it portrays—one that allows operatives like Schmidt to exert guru-like control over candidates—is most fascinating. Cynical and calculating though he is, you don’t hate Schmidt, but one does begin to understand how such smart people could have made so dumb a choice as selecting Palin. Confined to those hotel rooms, basing decisions about the mood of the American people off of polling data and one-off truisms, we begin to see the fatal nature of groupthink. 

Doubt, of course, is a great weakness in politics—candidates aren’t allowed to grapple with the slipperiness of issues but must dig their spikes deep into their turf and stand strong. Decisiveness is telegenic, confidence intoxicating. Which is what makes Game Change worth watching. For all its made-for-cable banal sensationalism, we get to imagine what these totems of certitude that we call American politicians look like in the throes of insecurity.

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