A telemovie called Game Change with Julianne Moore as Palin, Ed Harris as McCain and Woody Harrelson as Steve Schmidt, their campaign manager, is better than The Ides of March and the best backstage-of-politics film I have thus far seen. Avoiding Sorkin heroics, Oliver Stone ‘revelations’ and Spencer Tracy gravitas, it gets the tedium, sleeplessness, panic, momentary exuberance and knuckle-white suspense of campaigning (I have watched backstage about ten campaigns) than any film since, well, The Candidate in 1976.
It o’ersteps not, in Hamlet’s nice phrase, the modesty of nature. It is as it must have been. Woody Harrelson is as good as Giamatti and Hoffman in Ides; the decent, beliefless puppeteer exhausted and wanting another life. The script, by Danny Strong from the book by Mark Halperin, is majestic in its quietude, and the direction, by Jay Roach, almost Scandinavian in its unjudgmental tenderness .
Wonderfully, Moore’s Palin is not so much dumb as massively uninformed. She thinks the Queen rules England, Saddam caused 9/11, her opponent is called ‘O’Biden’ and does not know what the Fed is. She can, however, if tenaciously coached, pronounce ‘Ahmadinejad’ and learn forty minutes of closely-reasoned rhetoric she expertly delivers in the Debate. A small-town beauty with a personal history of sulking, she, Marilyn-Monroe-like, has verbal glitches, hates history tutorials and frequently goes on strike. Managing Judy Garland in her final bi-polar months would have been easier, I think, and the benign unlustful patience of McCain, a torture-survivor, is both surprising and convincing.
But like Judy she can deliver, and the unfeigned love of provincial America, which is about fifty percent of it, is deeply disturbing. Had she been allowed to speak after McCain conceded she’d be the nominee now, and Steve Schmidt knew this, and made sure she didn’t. McCain warns her against energising the party nutters, and shows what a champion of old-world political civility he was/is.
Shrewdly, Blitzer, Hannity, Anderson Cooper, Dana Bash, Obama and Biden are played by themselves and Moore’s Palin (identical in any case) computer-inserted into the crowd-and-platform shots absolutely seamlessly.
The result is a new kind of American movie, both drama and documentary, with the physical resemblances and walk-on performances so exact that, as in Capote, Downfall and The Gathering Storm, you completely surrender to the fabrication with all your heart. It is almost British in its modest caution, and so quietly thrilling moment by moment that you want it never to end.
Moore will get awards for it, as Streep did for her pitch-perfect Thatcher, but Harrelson is even better as the headshaven, patient, disgusted Henry Higgins of an Eliza he can neither stir nor punish when there’s a world to win and a game to change and she won’t come into the playpen and do the work.
A marvellous film. Available, I guess, on DVD soon. For all political backroomers, a must.