The gimmick that was Sarah Palin
JUN 20 -
If anyone had told me there was a film being made on Sarah Palin, I would’ve instantly assumed it would a) be a parody on Palin’s controversial time in the limelight a few years back and b) star Tina Fey. After all, Palin has been a veritable magnet for ridicule since 2008 following her endorsement as running mate for then US presidential hopeful John McCain of the Republican party, an endorsement that had quickly run into a wall. The ‘hockey mom from Wasilla’ made a number of media gaffes during that period which most of us got to snort over on TV and YouTube, then relive through Fey’s spot-on impressions as part of her Saturday Night Live sets. Even after all the jokes (including a Palin-themed porno at one point) had been made and the campaign was over and done with, Palin herself appeared unwilling to relinquish the attention, going on to write two books and even star in the ill-advised reality TV show Sarah Palin’s Alaska, basically comprising footage of her family frolicking around frozen landscapes and forested areas trying to catch fish or, alternatively, escape bears. Needless to say, for a public persona that was already prone to being lampooned, this wasn’t particularly helpful.
But Jay Roach’s Game Change, an HBO feature constructed around Palin’s erstwhile vice presidential bid, and based on a book of the same name by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, refrains from easy caricature or mockery, giving us a largely somber view of the atmosphere in the Republican camp during the last US elections. Roach, who directed 2008’s Recount—another made-for-TV movie that focused on the George W Bush vs Al Gore battle during the 2000 elections—as well as the Austin Powers and Meet the Parents series, serves up an interesting behind-the-scenes story in this latest film, and with the help of an excellent cast, tries to understand the political gimmick that was Sarah Palin.
The story takes off at a time when McCain’s (Ed Harris) campaign is falling under threat of being overshadowed by Obama’s rising popularity. A team of strategists led by senior advisor Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson) decides to counter the Democratic star power with a ‘game changer’ of their own—a female Vice President. After a few other choices are considered, the team comes across Sarah Palin (Julianne Moore), the then-Governor of Alaska, who as an attractive, personable and staunchly conservative family woman, appears to fit the bill
perfectly. Palin is more than happy to accept and following a shortened vetting period—during which no relevant policy questions are asked because all are so convinced this is their golden ticket—she is officially chosen.
Although Palin proves a hit with the Republican base at first, it soon becomes clear that she knows painfully little about politics, even so far as to be unaware of the rift between the two Koreas, or who actually heads the British government. Schmidt’s team find themselves having to coach her on issues, which she attempts to go along with initially, but finds increasingly overwhelming.
And with her family being quickly dragged through the mud thanks to revelations that her teenage daughter is pregnant, and relentless criticism from the liberal media, Palin’s confidence begins to waver, to the point where she zombies out, becoming what one of her team members describes as ‘catatonic’.
Hoping to give the sullen Palin a morale boost, Schmidt has the idea that she should memorise lines instead of trying to learn about issues, and this appears to work. But perhaps it works a bit too well, because as soon as she recognises the kind of celebrity following she’s gained, Palin soon spins out of control, dismissing advice from the team and forging ahead with her own agendas.
It all culminates in a final intense confrontation between Schmidt and Palin on the day of the results, where for the first time, neither holds back.
The film excels in bringing Palin’s internal struggles to the fore, and in that, humanising her. Moore, who has not just been moulded into an almost exact physical likeness, but has also nailed Palin’s distinctive accent and body language, creates such a compelling intertwining of ferocity and vulnerability that it is practically impossible to take one’s eyes off her. In embodying Palin’s humiliation at being rendered to nothing but a pretty prop, to be primped and played like a puppet, as well as her consequent rebellion, Game Change comprises a truly extraordinary and nuanced performance by the actress.
What Roach attempts to float here is the idea that Palin—despite being labeled a massive egomaniac—was perhaps herself a creation and a casualty of a political system that is more grey than black and white, and which relies on illusions rather than substance. In being singled out, untested, based on attributes that were largely superficial, and crafted by strategists into a mascot of sorts, the film tells us that she wasn’t entirely to blame when it came to the campaign’s downfall. Of course, filmmakers might have taken some liberties with the truth—like the way McCain has been painted as some sort of excessively high-principled white-haired saint, for instance—and yes, the dialogues often sound unnaturally theatrical and stiff, but this is alleviated by a well-paced script and top-notch acting. And although one would be right to question the wisdom in dramatising such recent events, barely four years old, Game Change is an engaging watch regardless.
Posted on: 2012-06-20 08:44