Could HBO's "Game Change" Change the Game of Politics?


Robert Brent Toplin, Professor of History (retired), University of North Carolina, Wilmington, has published several books on history, politics, and film, and he operates a website, His film-related books include "Reel History: In Defense of Hollywood," "History By Hollywood," and "Oliver Stone’s USA: Film, History, and Controversy."

Occasionally a movie excites a lively discussion in American politics. The HBO movie Game Change has certainly sparked such a ruckus. The drama about Sarah Palin’s experiences in the 2008 election campaign provoked lots of debate in the national media because it depicted Palin as unprepared to campaign effectively, let alone serve as vice president or as president. Game Change delivered a shocking reminder of how close the nation came in 2008 to seating a poorly qualified person in a major leadership position.

Can Game Change arouse public outrage over the way political operatives often name candidates for vice president? Could the film make a lasting impact on Washington politics? Many are inclined to believe that a single film has little chance of establishing lasting political influence. Hollywood entertainment, they say, can have a momentary effect, but it is unlikely to influence attitudes in the long run. Yet evidence from cinema history reveals that films, including made-for-television movies, sometimes make a difference. They cannot alter political opinion in radical ways, but they can affect it to a degree.

There are abundant examples of influence, small and large, that stretch from the early days of cinema’s history to recent times. Birth of a Nation (1915) inspired a revival of the Ku Klux Klan. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) excited anti-war sentiment in the '30s. All the President’s Men (1976) reminded viewers of the Watergate scandal in an election year. Some believe it undermined President Gerald Ford’s reelection bid (he had, after all, pardoned Richard Nixon). Holocaust (1978 in the U.S.; 1979 in Germany), a TV series out of Hollywood, aroused the German people’s awareness of their society’s involvement in wartime atrocities and provoked demands that politicians and teachers educate the public about Nazi oppression. This year, movie director Kathryn Bigelow, who won an Oscar for The Hurt Locker, arranged to delay the release of Zero Dark Thirty, a movie about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Her production will appear in theaters after the November 6, 2012 elections rather than before. Republicans complained that an October release of the movie would boost President Barack Obama’s chances for reelection.

If Game Change affects U.S. politics, its influence will probably relate to the way presidential nominees choose their running mates. Nominations for president are, perhaps counter-intuitively, less controversial than choices for vice president, because candidates for the top spot are vetted in public. Since the 1970s contenders for the White House have been identified through a lengthy and highly competitive series of state-based primary contests. In contrast, decisions about vice presidential candidates have often been made behind closed doors. Sometimes this arrangement produces a controversial figure, as in 1988 when Republican presidential nominee George H. W. Bush chose Dan Quayle as his running mate. Critics speculated that Bush and his advisers selected Quayle because of the candidate’s youth and good looks. Journalists complained that Quayle lacked political experience and leadership skills.

Game Change shows that John McCain and his advisers focused on superficial qualities when choosing Sarah Palin. McCain and his staffers were impressed by her charisma, and they believed her opposition to abortion would appeal to the GOP’s base. McCain’s aides hoped the selection of a woman for vice president could create excitement about the Republican ticket. In the summer of 2008 McCain needed a “game change” (also the title of a book by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, a major source of details for the film). Barack Obama’s popularity was surging and the Bush Administration was losing favor because of the financial crash and America’s troubles in Iraq. After looking quickly at information about several potential female candidates, the advisers identified Palin as an unusually promising figure. They asked few questions about Palin’s knowledge, judgment, and sophistication in the five days they had available to make a rushed decision about her qualifications.

Game Change shows disarray in the McCain campaign when those aides suddenly realize how flawed their selection process had been. An abundance of disturbing information turns up in the media about the Palin family’s controversial activities in Alaska. The situation turns worse for the handlers as they prepare Sarah Palin for interviews with the news media. They find her grossly ignorant of history. The movie shows that Palin does not understand the difference between North and South Korea. She thinks the queen of England is a principal architect of British foreign policy. Palin believes Saddam Hussein masterminded the 9/11 tragedy. Worried that their vice presidential candidate will flame out under journalists’ questioning, the aides offer the candidate a quick course on international affairs. Sarah Palin soon crumbles under the pressure. Frustrated and angry, she becomes rebellious. Rather than study for interviews with Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric, Palin attends to family matters and surfs the web for email messages.

After Sarah Palin and her associates criticized Game Change, Director Jay Roach and screenwriter Danny Strong defended their production by claiming the film presents a sympathetic portrait of the vice presidential candidate. The movie does, in fact, show that Palin (played effectively by Julianne Moore) responded quite well to some difficult political challenges. She delivered an impressive acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention and managed to complete a televised debate with Joe Biden without major flubs, with Biden having had decades of experience as a U.S. senator. Furthermore, the movie portrays Sarah Palin as a strong-willed and confident person who excited enthusiasm from many voters. Initially, McCain’s fortunes got a strong boost from her involvement in the campaign.

There are moments when the drama suggests that a rather ordinary and decent family-oriented woman was thrust into an extraordinary situation. If anyone is to blame for her troubles, the movie hints, it is the people who made the selection, not the rather obscure governor from Alaska who was surprised to be named.

The HBO movie is quite generous in its portrayal of John McCain (Ed Harris). It lets him off the hook, characterizing the Republican presidential nominee as a well-meaning leader who mistakenly trusted his advisers, especially Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson). But the choice for VP was ultimately McCain’s. Until shortly before the GOP convention opened, McCain wanted to name Senator Joe Lieberman as his running mate. Many GOP party leaders were uncomfortable with Lieberman, a pro-choice Democrat, and they communicated their objection vigorously. Running out of time, McCain then accepted his advisers’ hastily crafted judgment in favor of Palin. By going along with that recommendation, McCain undermined his bid for the White House.

Recently, Sarah Palin hinted that she might run for president if the Republicans become deadlocked at the 2012 convention. Her chances of winning the nomination have seemed remote throughout this year, but they appear even more remote after Game Change’s broadcast. Public reaction against a Palin candidacy would be intense in view of the film’s searing messages about her shortcomings. Furthermore, if a presidential nominee tries to foist another superficially attractive but poorly prepared VP candidate upon a party in the future, public expression of outrage is likely to be loud. Many critics will cite examples from HBO’s provocative movie when arguing that the American people deserve better.

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