Over The Counter Culture

Game Change: Redefining the Public’s Perception of Sarah Palin

By: Faith Ryan

Game Change is an HBO Films political drama based on the events that lead up to the 2008 presidential election as well as the election itself. The movie focuses on the McCain-Palin campaign, with a particular emphasis on Sarah Palin, who was portrayed by Julianne Moore in the film. The movie, based off of the critically acclaimed book, is full of facts and footage, and at many times lives up to the reality the world witnessed in 2008. As it always is in the entertainment industry, creative license was taken in the production of this movie, but it was used to a defamatory or grossly unrealistic extent. Game Change depicts Sarah Palin as the public wasn’t always able to see her: she was not an uneducated dunce, but a driven and ambitious woman who, like the rest of us, had flaws.

Jay Roach, the director of the film, wanted to focus more on the behind-the-scenes aspect of Sarah Palin’s role in the campaign than her public and televised speeches. He was interested in what happened behind closed doors and between advisors rather than the televised interviews and national conventions. “We had all seen what happen[ed] in public,” Roach said in an interview with Awardsline, “The real suspense would come from revealing the pressures that campaign managers face, the forces that pulled them to consider Sarah Palin [as McCain’s running mate]” (Haithman). While creating the movie, Roach did his best to make sure that Game Change “has a very even-handed tone to it” (Lavender). The director wanted to “get the story right and allow anybody with any prejudices against the main characters to go past the media iconography and see them as human beings” (Lavender). Of these characters—particularly Sarah Palin, John McCain, and campaign advisor Steve Schmidt—Roach said that “they are human beings who are trying to do what they think is right” (Lavender). Therefore, he does not use the movie to pass judgment on one character or put another up on a pedestal. He believes that all the characters “have strengths and they have weaknesses,” which he, throughout te course of the film, spends screen time pointing out. He did not create the film to show either the bad side or the good side of the campaign, but rather to show the gray area in between because that is where the campaign rested throughout its existence. In the beginning, Roach’s objective of creating a film that portrays Palin and the rest of the characters in a new light was seen as very ambitious, but in the end, it was ultimately successful.

Game Change is an engaging movie engaging for many reasons, including the nicely placed rhetorical appeals spread throughout the film’s fitting two hours. From the very beginning of the movie, it is clear that the filmmakers use the incredible amount of footage already available to them to their advantage. The movie opens with an interview between Anderson Cooper (his shots are taken from video recordings) and Steve Schmidt (who is played by Harrelson in the scene) that took place after the general election.  Cooper asks the question, “If you had to do [the election] over again, would you have [Sarah Palin] on the ticket?” (Game Change). The camera focuses on Schmidt, who can be seen looking down and away, appearing to be both thinking hard about his answer and unsure of what to say. The scene then transitions back in time so the audience can relive the picking of Sarah Palin and the ensuing campaign. From that first moment, Game Change shows audiences that it will be working with the facts, not against or around them. By peppering in video clips and voice recordings throughout the movie, Game Change only enhances this idea of realism and establishes its credibility from the outset. Furthermore, the close attention to even the littlest detail only emphasizes the lifelike feel the filmmakers strived so hard to capture with their actors. Hairstyles, outfits, speaking dialects, and behavioral mannerisms were all adopted by the cast to fit their specific characters so that everyone not only looked exactly like the person they were pretending to be, but acted exactly like them too.

Making the actors fit their parts perfectly was not only for legitimacy’s sake, but also to help with the heavier moments in the movie. These emotional moments would not have been half as meaningful or heart wrenching had the actor seemed involved in anything less than the character they were portraying. As is the case with politics, the job is not all fun and games. Throughout the course of the movie, viewers are reminded of this fact not once, but many times, as the campaign is dragged through the metaphorical mud and tripped up at nearly every chance. The audience is shown both Palin’s struggles and her triumphs in these instances. The viewers see her at both her highest and lowest points through her performance of speeches, interviews, and private moments. Depending on the sort of viewer the movie caters to, there are emotional moments for everyone mixed in throughout the movie: professional triumphs, personal embarrassments, arguments, moments of family unity, public humiliations… The list goes on, but the important take-away from the film is that it can affect every audience member. The victorious moments are presented and interspersed so perfectly with defeat that viewers can’t help but root for the main characters. Be them Sarah Palin supporters or not, it is impossible for viewers to watch the movie and not feel something for the characters involved—if not for Palin, then for McCain (whose dream of becoming president died before he managed to notice), Schmidt (who rushed Palin in too soon and had to deal with the consequences), Nicolle (who lost faith in her political party throughout the film), Palin’s family (who suffered so much criticism from the media simply for being related to the prospective VP), or for any number of side characters in the movie. Even if a viewer was not rooting for McCain and Palin during the 2008 election, Game Change can play to their emotions, making them feel at times that they want Palin to win just so things are easier on her and everyone else involved, and so the movie is less stressful and the scenes less embarrassing. When it becomes clear that the campaign is going downhill, some viewers may even end up praying for McCain and Palin to win simply because it would make all their trials and suffering worth it.

Like any well-paced movie, Game Change has neither moments of too-quick action or too-slow dialogue. Things move along at a brisk clip, and by the time the movie is over, some may not be able to believe it. Since Game Change depicted many well known and highly televised events, the filmmakers had an important task in choosing which events they wanted to focus on. Some were brought more front and center than others, like Palin’s acceptance speech at the RNC, but the choices were all made to best suit the feel of the film and the historical facts of the time; each pick was practical and logical. Altogether, the movie flowed nicely—logically moving along the campaign trail to the big ending on election night. Echoing the beginning of the movie, the last scene of the film returns to Schmidt’s interview with Anderson Cooper. Again, Schmidt is shown looking away from the camera, as if off in thought, clearly unsure of what to say when asked if he would invite Palin to run as VP a second time. Finally, dodging Cooper’s question, he slowly replies, “You don’t get to go back in time, Anderson, and… and have do-overs in life” (Game Change). The connected opening and closing scenes of the movie are perfectly utilized to both tie the movie together as a whole and finish with that sense of ambiguity about what would have happened if someone besides Sarah Palin had been chosen to run with McCain. It leaves audiences with a question in their mind and something to talk about after the movie is over.

Though Game Change was directed at the American audience as a whole, one can discern that this objective was not exactly achieved. Since the movie was so politically charged, it polarized many viewers from the very moment they saw the trailer. Many on the left side of the spectrum dismissed the movie for its subject matter—those who vehemently opposed Palin in the 2008 election were very unlikely to be interested in a movie entirely about her. Meanwhile, those on the fanatical right side dismissed the movie as “fiction” while others saw it as a lie, something akin to sacrilege (Lavender). What Roach is left for as an audience are those in the middle ground—undecided voters, independent voters, and less-diehard Republicans and Democrats—and if they’re all are interested in such a movie and have access to watch it. Though Game Change did run in some theaters, it was not shown across the country and did not remain in theaters for long. When most people saw it, they viewed it on HBO, a television station that costs about $18 a month, a price that may exclude a good amount of viewers. For those without HBO but who have access to a computer, the film could be found online at any number of illegal movie-streaming websites. In this easily accessible movie format, the story of Game Change and the new look into Sarah Palin reaches out to many people it might never have touched in the first place, entertaining them as much as educating.

Unlike previous portrayals of Sarah Palin’s character, Game Change did not resort to a gross caricature of the governor nor did it deify a woman who did not warrant such hero-worship. Instead, Game Change presented a rather balanced and accurate portrayal of Palin. From the very start of the movie, viewers see a Palin that has never been mocked on SNL or caught fumbling over questions on Katie Couric clips played on repeat for a few laughs. Instead, she is depicted as a woman who is dedicated both to her family and her job. She does not appear to be looking for a VP slot in the upcoming election. However, when asked to be John McCain’s running mate, she brings that same dedication from her previous life to the campaign. As the movie progresses, the audience is not thrown neck-deep into a pool of Palin’s gaffes and missteps that she is now infamous for, but waded in a toe at a time. For instance, it isn’t until the film has passed the half-hour mark that it is even mentioned—and in a quiet aside by a side character, no less—that Palin might not have all the experience or knowledge that McCain’s campaign strategists might have expected when hiring her. Even after that first mention, things do not begin to clearly snowball until the end of the film. As it becomes clearer that Palin is unfit for the role of vice president of the United States, she is portrayed as becoming more ambitious—grasping for the spotlight at any chance she can find. She even attempts to out-do John McCain with her own speech on election night, something that had never before done by a vice presidential hopeful.

What is so refreshing about Moore’s portrayal of Palin, the writing of the film, and the pacing of the movie, is that every aspect is not only accurate, but also believable. When viewers see Moore, Harris, and Harrelson on the big screen, they do not see the actors, and instead they see Palin, McCain, and Schmidt. Their Golden-Globe-winning performances attest to their mastery at both the impersonation and their craft of acting out their characters. These actors did not merely pretend to be these political figures; they became them. Their performances made the audiences believe in the accuracy of the story they were watching unfold and that is what persuaded people to sit and watch—that the film was based in fact was an added, though vitally important, detail to viewers while watching. In this case, it is believability that makes this new depiction of Palin strong enough to stand next to the one-sided caricatures from SNL and strong enough to even carve out a new identity for the heavily-mocked former governor. Game Change did not only depict a changing political landscape, but it also redefined a woman who seemed doomed to only be known for her mistakes.


Game Change. Dir. Jay Roach. Perf. Julianne Moore, Ed Harris, Woody Harrelson, Sarah Paulson. HBO, 2012. DVD.

Haithman, Diane. “EMMYS: Jay Roach On ‘Game Change’.” Deadlinecom. N.p., 25 June 2012. Web. 07 Feb. 2013.

Lavender, Paige. “‘Game Change’: Sarah Palin Dismisses HBO Film As Unimportant.”The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 10 Mar. 2012. Web. 06 Feb. 2013.

Rainey, James. “Julianne Moore Gets inside Sarah Palin’s Skin for ‘Game Change'” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 06 Mar. 2012. Web. 06 Feb. 2013.

Stephanopoulos, George. “Former Sarah Palin Adviser Says ‘Game Change’ Was ‘True Enough to Make Me Squirm’.” ABC News. ABC News Network, 11 Mar. 2012. Web. 30 Jan. 2013.

Zakarin, Jordan. “‘Game Change’: Steve Schmidt Endorses HBO’s Film, Blasts Sarah Palin.” The Hollywood Reporter. N.p., 12 Mar. 2012. Web. 04 Feb. 2013.

This entry was published on April 17, 2013 at 10:57 am. It’s filed under Rhetorical Analysis and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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