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Review: Game Change Blu-Ray/DVD Combo + Digital Copy

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Julianne Moore, who plays Sarah Palin in Game Change, donated almost $10,000.00 to Democratic Party candidates.  Ed Harris, who plays John McCain, has been a regular donor to Democrats and liberal organizations since 1988.  Woody Harrelson, who plays McCain’s campaign manager Steve Schmidt, has also been generous with contributions to left-wing candidates and groups.  So has executive producer Tom Hanks.  And director Jay Roach, and writer Danny Strong, and…

I’m no fan of Sarah Palin, but I wasn’t looking forward to a crude hatchet job, either.  The amazing thing about Game Change, which aired on HBO last year, is that while it’s certainly not a pro-Palin film by any means, it makes her into a much more sympathetic character than I had any right to expect.

Game Change opens in 2007, when Senator John McCain’s campaign for the Republican Presidential nomination is going very poorly.  McCain convinced Schmidt to come on board, and by the time primary season arrived he was the clear front-runner.

Unfortunately for McCain, the Democrats had nominated the charismatic and exciting Barack Obama, who took the country by storm.  McCain’s attacks against Obama’s inexperience weren’t gaining traction, and he was reluctant to go after his opponent’s association with dubious characters like Rev. Jeremiah Wright (“God damn America!”) and former Weather Underground radical Bill Ayers.

The gender gap – Obama’s huge advantage with female voters – was a particularly big problem for McCain, and a “game-changing,” preferably female, running mate seemed like the only way to turn things around.  And at first, Alaska governor Sarah Palin seemed absolutely perfect.

Before long, though, it became clear that Schmidt and the campaign did a poor job of vetting their new star candidate.  She gave a blockbuster speech at the GOP national convention, and was mobbed by adoring fans wherever she went – but the media (and the Obama campaign) quickly found much to question about her seemingly impeccable record in her home state.  More worrisome, Palin showed an alarming lack of understanding on major issues, especially in foreign policy and economics.

You know the rest.  Palin survived her debate with Joe Biden, but disastrous media interviews with Katie Couric and Charles Gibson, endless jokes and parodies on late-night television and YouTube, and her increasingly erratic behavior on the campaign trail sealed McCain’s fate among moderate and independent voters.  By the end of the campaign, even Palin’s own press secretary couldn’t bring herself to vote.

Julianne Moore certainly looks the part (though, as some have joked, she probably isn’t quite as attractive as the real Palin).  But her portrayal is not just an imitation – the candidate is ruthlessly ambitious, but also overwhelmed by the media attention and devoted to her family, especially her young son with Down’s Syndrome.  When she meets other Down Syndrome children and their parents on the campaign trail she is genuinely touched, and when she hears vicious rumours about little Trig not being her child, it’s hard not to feel sorry for her.  (Maybe I’m giving the filmmakers too much credit, but I’d like to think these scenes were included as a rebuke to Palin conspiracy freaks like Andrew Sullivan.)

Ed Harris is also terrific as McCain, who was reluctant to roll the dice on Palin (he wanted his friend Joe Lieberman as a running mate) and becomes increasingly concerned about the direction his once-honourable campaign has taken, especially when supporters scream about Obama being a “terrorist” and a “Muslim” at campaign events.  As with Palin, the film’s portrayal of McCain is more sympathetic than I expected.

Woody Harrelson, as Schmidt, is really the central character of the film.  Indeed, it was Schmidt who disclosed much of the material about McCain and Palin that made it into the book Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, on which this film was based.

Which brings me to my only real problem with the movie.  Game Change is briskly paced and compelling, with typical HBO-quality production values.  (Director Jay Roach, best known for the Austin Powers movies, and his editors do a great job mixing the actors and real cable-news footage from the 2008 campaign.)  But what about the rest of the book?

As you can tell from the full title, Heilemann and Halperin’s book was about the entire 2008 Presidential campaign, not just McCain and Palin.  And it’s not like the rest of the book was forgettable – the authors told the story of the increasingly hard-edged battle between Obama and Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side, and also revealed the sordid details of John Edwards’s tumultuous relationship with his wife and his extramarital affairs, including a child borne out of wedlock.

There’s no way all of this could have fit into a two-hour movie, of course, which is why Game Change might have been even better as a miniseries based on the whole book, not just the parts about the filmmakers’ political opponents.  To ask the question of why this wasn’t done is to answer it.

Technical details: the Blu-Ray version of Game Change looks crisp, clear and flawless.  If anything, it might look a bit too good for some special-effects sequences, especially when McCain’s (apparently computer-generated) campaign jet is in the air.  The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround audio is also terrific, especially during elaborately staged re-creations of the campaign crowds.  Every angry word about Obama, in particular, is perfectly clear.

The only special features are a couple of short behind-the-scenes documentaries – no deleted scenes, trailers or filmmakers’ commentary here.

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