HBO's Game Change, about the making and unmaking of vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin during the 2008 presidential election, is basically that scene stretched out to feature length — an agonizing experience. You don't need to know the names of political consultants or remember every detail of the campaign to become immersed in it, because in its heart, it's about coming up against the limits of one's own competence. This harsh lesson is learned not by Palin, but by the people who submitted her as McCain's running mate, and by McCain himself, who unknowingly ceded the election the minute he added her to the ticket.
For Sarah Palin (Julianne Moore), indeed for everyone on the McCain campaign team, the election season is final exam week, and as the big day draws near, they become increasingly surly and depressed. McCain (Ed Harris) and his campaign strategist Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson) signed off on the drafting of Palin because they wanted to find an authentic and unique running mate, a woman who would kick McCain out of the old-white-guy perception rut he'd been stuck in, reestablish his "maverick" bona fides, shake up the race, and lend him a proxy version of Barack Obama's rock star buzz, which the McCain team misinterprets as empty flash. ("If he heals a sick baby, we're really fucked," McCain grumbles, after catching a glimpse of Obama thronged by admirers at a campaign event.) The film's conception of Palin as a woman who's in over her head, and a campaign that's every bit as overmatched, might account for all the early reviews that note, with some surprise, that Game Change isn't the gleeful hatchet job a lot of people anticipated, and that at times it even treats the former Alaska governor with something like sympathy. But that's no giant shock, really. Even a mostly loathsome and laughable public figure becomes likable when you put her in a position that everybody can relate to. So many scenes in this docudrama-styled movie are about people stumbling onto the precipice of their own ignorance or ill-preparedness, then pinwheeling their arms like cartoon characters to keep from falling into the abyss.
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Matt Zoller Seitz is co-founder and publisher of Press Play and TV critic for New York Magazine.