The first thing you need to know about “Game Change” is that the acting is great — so great, in fact, that Americans who followed the 2008 presidential campaign may have trouble watching it.
Maybe it’s because of how well Julianne Moore gets Sarah Palin in the movie, which airs on HBO Saturday night, or because of how fresh the campaign is in our minds. But you can’t help wincing as it’s suggested by McCain advisor Steve Schmidt (played by Woody Harrelson) that Palin “act” her way through her debate with Joe Biden. The re-creation of the infamous interview with Katie Couric is as painful to watch now as was the original.
Game Change has fallen into the “uncanny valley” — the term used in robotics and computer animation to describe the revulsion people feel when they see a nearly human humanoid, a response invoked deliberately in “The Stepford Wives” and criticized in the recent animated film “The Polar Express.” Moore, Harrelson, and Ed Harris, playing McCain, turn in brilliant impersonations. The result is not fiction, but it’s not quite reality either — and that makes it hard to watch.
The film edges closer still to reality by mixing actual footage from the 2008 campaign: interviews, debates, and events, with the actors on a soundstage. It’s a neat, seamless trick, but it further muddles the line between fact and portrayal.
Though the acting is remarkably close to life, the plot is stylized. Game Change is an epic tragedy, with Schmidt as the classical hero — blinded by his desire to win, but coming to terms with the levels to which he has stooped in a cathartic shouting match with Palin toward the end of the film. He puts his foot down after months of accommodation, and won’t allow her to give a concession speech. (A moment that does not appear in the book, and whose source is subject to some debate.)
The characters are well-drawn; the plot remains a matter of debate. Schmidt is lionized; while Palin bears the blame for all that went wrong with the campaign. In reality, there were other bad calls: McCain’s decision to returning to Washington in the midst of the financial crisis certainly played a role, as did the simple fact that he was a Republican in a year when voters wanted change. The only reason McCain’s campaign had anything to lose — by their own admission — was the selection of the “game-changing” running mate.
Harris’ John McCain is absent from much of the film, relegated to a kind of grandfatherly role of advising his adviser (Schmidt) and his running mate. The more notable absence is any real portrayal of the Democratic primary and then-Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign, which has drawn charges of being politically motivated from Republicans. The Clinton campaign, which essentially shared the entirety of its juicy email archive with John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, is nowhere to be found.
The film doesn’t pretend to tell the full story of the 2008 campaign. It doesn’t even prove to be the compendium of insider gossip and micro-scoops that made the book so commercially successful (even if it left you feeling dirty afterward). But where a collection of emotional sound bites and embarrassing moments sometimes fell short in a campaign book, it works wonders in a movie that just happens to be about politics. The worst thing about this film may be being forced to come to grips with the fact that it isn’t exactly fiction.
Game Change premiers at 10 p.m. Saturday on HBO.