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October 22, 2014

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TV: ‘Game Change’ dully dramatizes Sarah Palin’s ‘08 election impact

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Pretty frightening … how much Julianne Moore looks like Sarah Palin in Game Change.

The Details

Game Change
Two and a half stars
March 10, 9 p.m., HBO

In the tradition of superfluous HBO current-events dramatizations Too Big to Fail and Recount, Game Change is a meticulously researched, mostly even-handed re-creation of a recent news story, adding little to the existing coverage other than to package it into a dramatic narrative with familiar actors. In this case the event is the 2008 presidential election, in particular, the impact of Sarah Palin (Julianne Moore) on the campaign of Republican candidate John McCain (Ed Harris).

John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s book—the movie’s credited source material—covers the entire election, including the Democratic and Republican primaries and both the Obama and McCain campaigns. But screenwriter Danny Strong and director Jay Roach focus just on Palin’s presence in the McCain campaign. Essentially, this is a movie about Sarah Palin, and Harris’ performance as McCain gets sidelined pretty early in favor of chronicling Palin’s difficulties adjusting to national scrutiny and handling major policy issues.

Like Recount (which came from the same writing/directing team), Game Change deals mostly in soundbites (sometimes literally, with numerous re-creations of speeches and interviews) rather than characters, and its versions of McCain and Palin are familiar from any number of magazine articles and news reports. Campaign advisors played by Woody Harrelson and Sarah Paulson come closer to resembling fully realized characters, but they still exist largely to provide context for the news events that make up the movie’s plot. The actors do their best to provide a little color around the exposition, but there’s only so much room for them to maneuver.

Roach also makes extensive use of archival news footage, and it’s disconcerting to watch Harris as McCain going up against the real Barack Obama, or Moore as Palin intercut with real footage of Katie Couric and Charles Gibson interviewing her. The movie is sometimes brutal in its depictions of Palin as naïve and ill-informed, although it’s generally sympathetic to McCain and his staffers. But as it did in Recount, that lack of a strong point of view renders the film mostly bland; its re-enactments are competently staged and carefully crafted, but they do little more than say, “This happened.”

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