'Game Change' is an old Hollywood story, a la 'A Star Is Born'
It’s hardly a surprise to discover that Sarah Palin is no fan of “Game Change,” the new HBO film about the dizzying ups and downs that buffeted John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign after he picked the then-unknown Alaska governor as his running mate.
According to its filmmakers, the movie, which debuted Saturday, is a scrupulously well-sourced account of Palin’s ascendancy to the national stage. According to its detractors, who include McCain and Palin, as well as much of Palin’s campaign staff, the film is just another example of showbiz liberal bias. As Palin put it the other day: “Hollywood lies are Hollywood lies. . . . The movie is based on a false narrative.”
It’s easy to see why Palin hates a movie that portrays her as a woefully unprepared candidate who wilts under intense media scrutiny. But for me, “Game Change” doesn’t have a false narrative. It actually has an eerily familiar narrative, one that dates back to the earliest days of Hollywood: the backstage showbiz drama. It's just the backdrop that's different -- instead of a Broadway theater, or movie back lot, we've got a political convention and campaign.
Palin is the wide-eyed young starlet plucked from small-town obscurity and thrust into the spotlight, forced to rely on her innate self-confidence to survive in a shark tank full of jaded performers, I mean, politicos. McCain is portrayed as the aging leading man, an ex-war hero hoping for one last hurrah, forced to choose between his flinty integrity and the opportunistic demands of a new media age.
The entire Palin-McCain relationship has an uncanny similarity to the story arc of “A Star Is Born,” except that the twosome are a couple thrown together by political expediency, not starry-eyed romance.
It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that no story line has deeper roots in Hollywood’s family tree. The earliest days of talkies were populated with dozens of backstage melodramas, from 1929’s “Broadway Melody” to 1933’s “42nd Street” to 1934’s “Twentieth Century” and 1936’s “The Great Ziegfeld.” The early 1950s were also crammed with similar stories, notably in films such as “All About Eve,” “The Bad and the Beautiful,” “Singing in the Rain” and “The Band Wagon.”
Even today, the genre is alive and well. Look at “The Artist,” the Oscar best picture winner that unfolds in late-1920s Hollywood. Both "The Artist" and "Game Change" feature men struggling to keep their relevancy, whether it’s in a new-media dominated political world or a film industry being reinvented by talkies. Both films center on easily underestimated women who are transformed into instant stars, thanks to their ambition and an innate connection with the hoi polloi.
When I spoke to “Game Change” director Jay Roach the other day, he broke into a broad grin when I brought up the backstage drama comparisons. “Frankly, that’s all I was interested in when we started working on the film,” he explained. “That’s what makes politics so compelling today. The audience sees all of the show and presentation that comes across in the debates and speeches and TV ads. But what we don’t get to see is the influence of the strategists and campaign managers who are always there, behind the scenes.”
Roach has always had a fascination with similar manipulators. Long before he emerged as a top comedy director with such hits as “Austin Powers” and “Meet the Parents,” he produced “The Empty Mirror,” a little-seen 1996 speculative drama about Adolf Hitler coming to terms with his infamy. “Even then, I was more interested in Goebbels than Hitler,” he says. “He was the idea guy who made the horrible ideas seem like they were good ones. He was the spinmeister.”
The backstage aspect of campaign image making—first openly captured on film in the 1993 documentary “War Room”--clearly fueled Roach’s interest in making “Game Change." "The people in the back rooms are a lot like screenwriters, in the sense that they come up with the right narrative to pitch to the public.”
Even though he’s best known for his work in comedy, politics is never far from Roach’s mind. In 2004, he produced a reality TV series about finding grassroots candidates who would run in that year’s presidential election. In 2008, he directed “Recount,” an HBO film about the contested 2000 presidential election. He’s now in post-production on “The Campaign,” a comedy due this August that stars Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis as rival candidates embroiled in a nasty race for a congressional seat in North Carolina.
Although the story is played for laughs, it has roots in reality: Galifianakis’ uncle, Nick Galifianakis, was a three-term Democratic congressman in North Carolina who ran for the Senate in 1972, only to be beaten in a bruising campaign by Jesse Helms. “The movie is all about the power of the Super PACs and negative campaigning,” Roach says. “It’s really what I’m trying to get across in ‘Game Change’ as well. Do we want to live in a world where the electoral process feels like a reality TV show or a Sunday afternoon World Wrestling match?”
Having closely followed the 2008 campaign, Roach told HBO he’d love to do a film that put viewers into a backstage political environment. Once he saw former McCain campaign strategist Steve Schmidt on “60 Minutes,” offering a withering assessment of Palin, he knew he had a movie. “If you put people together who don’t know each other very well in a high-stakes game, battling their opponent while they’re also fighting each other,” he says, "you have the makings of classic drama.”
In the early days of the movies, backstage dramas offered audiences an opportunity for an inside peek into the lives of stars at a time when the print media presented a well-scrubbed portrait of showpeople’s private lives. So it’s only natural that today’s backstage dramas gravitate toward politicians, since life in Washington involves as much image-making as any practiced in Hollywood.
“Game Change” joins a sizable contingent of backstage political dramas, from “Wag the Dog” and “Primary Colors” to “W” and “The Ides of March.” Today’s audiences, having grown up in a reality TV culture, are eager to see past the political tinsel--the polished speeches, campaign ads and debate performances—and get a good look at how the sausage is being made.
Whether it's a sex scandal, graft and corruption or just Palin's diva-style antics, the misadventures of public figures offer terrific fodder for filmmakers like Roach, who see rich storytelling possibilities in the huge chasm between appearance and reality in politics.
Near the end of “Game Change,” a McCain operative says, “The ones who don’t pathologically need to be loved—they don’t get elected.” He was talking about politicians, but hey, the description is a perfect fit for almost any movie star who’s ever roamed the planet. In politics or in showbiz, stone cold narcissism makes for irresistible drama.
Photo: Julianne Moore, left, as Sarah Palin, and Ed Harris as Sen. John McCain in a scene from the HBO film "Game Change." Credit: Phil Caruso/Associated Press/HBO