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Watching Game Change with Americans is surreal

One guy said, "The Republicans will go nuts complaining about this." Another said, "No, they won't. They'll just call it a liberal media hatchet job."

On Thursday night I sat in a room with about 50 American journalists to watch HBO's docudrama Game Change (airs HBO Canada, March 10). The movie is based on the bestselling book of the same name about recent American presidential campaigns by journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann.

The movie dramatizes only one section – the John McCain campaign in 2008 from the choice of Sarah Palin as candidate for vice-president to the night McCain lost. The movie, like the book, is not speculative or based on hearsay. Much of it is based on an account of the McCain campaign by Steve Schmidt, a Republican Party campaign strategist, who is played by Woody Harrelson in the movie, with multiple eyewitness corroborations.

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Watching it with the American journalists was an education. At first, as the movie opened with McCain (Ed Harris) and his advisers discussing potential running mates, there was a jaunty satirical tone. There was laughter in the room. Even as the Palin character (Julianne Moore plays her with aplomb) entered the picture, all gee-whiz enthusiasm, there was lots of laughter.

Then the laughing stopped. There was silence. Then there were groans of embarrassment. Not because the movie is mediocre. It's actually thrillingly good. But because the depth of Palin's ignorance of the world became clear.

It is a devastating portrait of Palin. And a searing indictment of the McCain camp for selecting her. As the movie tells it, Palin was vetted quickly and became the running mate in order to swiftly boost McCain's chances against a soaring Barack Obama. Then, after Palin's unveiling as the running mate, the team, especially Schmidt, set about preparing her for media interviews and a vice-presidential candidates debate.

It was around that period in the movie that many reporters in the room sighed. Some cursed. Others slumped in their chairs. It is made crystal clear that Palin didn't really understand why there was a North Korea and a South Korea. She clearly thought that Saddam Hussein was behind the 9/11 attacks. She needed to have Germany's role in the Second World War explained to her. She thought "the Fed" referred to the federal government, not the Federal Reserve. The Governor of Alaska was as ignorant of the world as a four-year-old. Except of course, voters were being asked to put this ludicrously uninformed person, in the proverbial phrase, "a heartbeat away from the presidency."

Under pressure, but with a profound sense of her own importance, Palin crumbles. In one scene, she is catatonic, curled up, immobile in a fetal position because she's been dieting. In another she screams at a McCain staffer on her cellphone and then smashes the phone against a wall. She is depicted as someone who could be taught to memorize generic replies to questions from journalists, but could not recognize her own ignorance. As the movie shows it, after every appearance before cheering crowds her ego swelled and she simply declined to listen to any advice about anything.

A key scene, memorably surreal, shows Julianne Moore as Palin watching Tina Fey play Palin on TV. Palin's face is rigid with mystification.

Game Change is great drama grounded in an uncomfortable political reality. Sarah Palin soared to the top of American politics an ignoramus. That is why many reporters watching it seemed scarred by the experience.

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On Friday, the cast and producers came here to discuss the movie. Most questions were, understandably, aimed at Julianne Moore, who had the daunting task of playing a vital contemporary figure in the American culture. Any accusation of a "liberal media hatchet job" were lessened by Moore's take on Palin. Personally, Moore says, she's sympathetic.

"I certainly have profound respect for the historical nature of her candidacy. I mean, from where she was taken out of state government, to be thrust into a national and international stage like this that was a tremendous amount of pressure. And that was the other thing I was attempting to capture. What was that like, that pressure cooker kind of atmosphere? What does that do to somebody psychologically? The fact that she was able to perform the way she was able to, was simply amazing."

McCain is treated kindly in the movie, depicted as a man who allowed himself to be persuaded to have Palin as a running mate and came to rue it. Ed Harris said, "You know, he's a man of a tremendous sense of honour and duty, and when he decided to go into politics, I think that by his own admission, his ambition and his ego were in constant conflict with this sense of honour and duty and patriotism. It was an interesting thing to play with, in the portraying of him."

That's actors talking. Danny Strong, who wrote and co-produced the movie was more direct in discussing what unfolds in Game Change. "Well, I think politics has become entertainment and that's a lot about what this film is about, about the nature of celebrity in politics where the 24-hour news cycle, at this point, it's not even about news. It's about entertainment. It doesn't matter even what happens. It's ephemeral. You are supposed to forget it the next day because then there's a new, entertaining story that's supposed to grab you the day after that."

If the movie is about the blurring of politics and celebrity, I can report an interesting vignette to add to the surreal nature of watching the movie with American journalists and then hearing it discussed.

Most actors who come to the TV critics press tour arrive and leave in a limousine. Not Ed Harris. I was hanging around when he left the hotel on Friday. He got into a pickup truck, presumably his own, and drove off. As the truck pulled out I saw a single bumper sticker on the back. It said, "OBAMA 08."

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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