Palin’s America: Jay Roach’s The Game Change

Oh, the torments that can be inflicted on language, notably by American political strategists.  But in HBO’s recent The Game Change, an effort by Jay Roach to chart the political emergence of Sarah Palin as a force of the Republican Party in the 2008 presidential campaign, we have such a ‘change’.  With then Presidential candidate Barack Obama charging up the charm charts with frenzied momentum, the McCain campaign seemed to be dithering to certain defeat, unmoored by a clear vice-presidential hopeful and cursed by the toxic atmosphere generated by the Bush administration.  Options were cast aside no sooner were they considered.  Joe Lieberman, a true conservative from the Democratic wing, was McCain’s preference, but would have divided the GOP convention.

Enter, then, the ‘hockey mum’ governor from Alaska (played here by Julianne Moore), an individual so drastically indifferent to foreign policy and economics it would have been an act of national suicide to have placed her in the highest circles of government, even as a vice president.  The engineer of the move is McCain’s political strategist Steve Schmidt, carried off here by the commanding Woody Harrelson, who rues the decision to run with Palin. ‘This wasn’t a campaign, it was a bad reality show.’  Ed Harris, who plays McCain, essentially plays a calm second fiddle in the show.

But is that really the point? Ronald Reagan took the White House into uncharted areas of astrology and patent fantasy.  Along with his wife, Nancy, the White House did not become Camelot so much as a psychiatrist’s dreamtime villa, narcotized by fantasies of Grand America and bromides on freedom.

In a sense, the film provides a good study of what exactly has soured in the political process.  The political ‘message’ has become the casualty of the twenty-four hour news cycle, and the cult of celebrity.  The versatile actor is bound to do better than the plodding but principled practitioner.  If a senator from Illinois with a threadbare political record can sizzle on the airways, hum on television and Youtube on the loop, then Palin would provide the alternative.  She is, concedes Schmidt, the best actor in politics.  Throw her the lines, let her memorise them even if she doesn’t understand them.

Nothing ever prepares you for the obvious.  Politics is not a science with discernable cosmological rules.  This does little to dissuade the political junkies in pitting their wits against each other in a false, pseudo-scientific battle in which advantages are supposedly won or lost in a day’s casting, or a day’s ratings.

Pollsters are essentially the herpes of the political system, and are for that reason taken seriously as a condition that’s treatable but permanent.  None of their suggestions are ever verifiable except on the day of battle.  Today’s Tea Party lunatic is tomorrow’s stable political choice on the plane to the G-8 summit, a phenomenon at best only alluded to by Roach’s effort.  Who is to ultimately say that Palin’s ineptitude is not, in itself, her strength? (Moore does a rather good job here in sketching that characterization – condemn her ignorance and stupidity at your own peril.)

The survivor in this is Palin, who grows increasingly more erratic the more authentic she wishes to become – if one regards ditching homework on global affairs as one such manifestation.  According to the script, she goes into ‘catatonic’ states; she suffers breakdowns as she is metamorphosing into a national political creature.  The growth is painful but ultimately powerful – populism is, after all, her bread and butter.

At the end of the day, who gives a damn if her geography is cringe worthy – the Bush Presidency was something of a cerebral revolution, an accelerated reverse of thought that made anything entirely possible and every constitutional guarantee mutable by executive fiat.  The slime of that administration lingers with its sinister effect on American politics, and no governing force is exempt from it.  The destructive genies are out of the bottle, and that point is simply not carried off well in this production.

The lurking message at the end of the film is that Palin, far from defeated, lurks in the corridors of the Right, awaiting to spring with her vengeful Wasilla twang and rifle should she be given the chance to do so again.  McCain will not run again for the office but Palin just might.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and can be reached at: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.