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‘Game Change’ Review: Cliché with Compassion

“Game Change” is not a flawless docudrama. Neither is it, in the words of a conservative blogger, “a heinous piece of propaganda” for Obama.

What “Game Change” is, at its essence, is a wildly-entertaining cautionary tale about presidential politics. Moral of the story: Be careful what you wish for.

“Game Change,” which debuts on HBO Saturday, follows Sen. John McCain‘s disastrous decision to name then-unknown Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his Republican running mate in 2008. It’s based on the best seller of the same title by reporters Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, both of whom served as consultants.

McCain and Palin, among others in their respective camps, have made so much noise about the alleged inaccuracies of “Game Change” (sight unseen) that HBO included a letter in its media kit, defending Danny Strong’s script. For HBO, that is not an everyday occurrence.

This much is beyond dispute – Julianne Moore and Ed Harris give remarkable performances as Palin and McCain.

Moore, a four-time Oscar nominee, perfectly mimics Palin’s speech in its distinctive rhythm, pitch, and scrappin’ of consonants. She doesn’t go too far, however, allowing her to avoid the level of parody by Tina Fey on “Saturday Night Live.” (In a nice touch, Moore is shown watching the “SNL” clips.)

Harris is equally impressive in his McCain incarnation. The actors’ eyes alone speak volumes, particularly in the scene where his Alpha-dog chief strategist, Steve Schmidt (played to the

hilt by a bald Woody Harrelson), convinces him that Palin is the solution to his languishing campaign.

At that point, McCain has no idea that his staff’s speed vetting of his vice president, completed over five days instead of over several months, failed to discover that Palin was dumb as a stump about global politics and world history, not to mention geography.

As she’s prepped for her first media interviews, she’s genuinely surprised to learn that the Queen of England is the head of state, not the head of government. That would be the Prime Minister, whoever he is. She also has no idea what ‘the Fed’ means, or why North and South Korea are different countries.

Palin’s crowd-drawing charisma compensates for her intellectual naiveté, at least in the beginning. It starts to fall apart – and so does she – after her now-iconic interviews with ABC’s Charlie Gibson and CBS’s Katie Couric. Director Jay Roach (“Recount”) seamlessly weaves footage of the real interviews with Moore’s Palin.

That is not to say that “Game Change” reduces Palin to a villainous cliché. To the contrary, she is portrayed as a compassionate mother and instinctive campaigner whose nerves fray under crushing stress. One cannot help but feel for her. Nothing could have prepared her for the level of public scrutiny that comes with a national candidacy.

McCain and his advisers, veterans of the blood sport that is national politics, were prepared, and yet they continued to treat Palin like a show dog. Train her and stroke her enough, she’ll perform for the judges.

Harrelson as Schmidt says as much in one scene: “She’s a great actress, right? Why don’t we just give her some lines?”

In the end, when it’s clear that the American public prefers another charismatic star, Schmidt acknowledges that he, more than any single person, was responsible for creating the monster. “It wasn’t a campaign,” he sighs, “it was a bad reality show.”

Some say the same thing about “Game Change.” Ignore them. This is one roller-coaster that is definitely worth the ride.

“Game Change” debuts Saturday at 9pm on HBO.

Update: See photos from the film’s NYC premiere at FishbowlNY.

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