Sunday, March 11, 2012

Review: Game Change

This is the video that Sarah Palin put out in response to HBO's Game Change. It opens with the HBO logo and morphs it to BHO--where the 'O' is the Obama logo. This tells you everything you need to understand about the dynamic Sarah Palin has with the media:
  1. She is clever--media savvy--her instincts are world class. Turning HBO into BHO (Barak Hussein Obama) is a power-move that obviates the need for the rest of the response video: You get her whole story in two seconds. If you think she didn't come up with it--fine: but consider she did come up with 'Death Panels' which, in one post, changed the nature of the health care debate over night.
  2. She understands digital media in a way that both Republicans and Democrats have yet to figure out.
  3. The media narrative around her--a narrative the book Game Change and the HBO movie are part of--is negative and unrelentingly consistent: she is not ready to be president.
The third part--that Sarah Palin has been subjected to a barrage of negativity that, if not the worst ever, has to be close to it--is key to understanding the narrative of Game Change. Her detractors will say she deserved it--perhaps: it seems unlikely that almost anyone would say she deserves all of it. Unless you hate her. Which many people do.

That has been one of the hardest things for me about Game Change: it makes everyone--everyone--on the McCain team sympathetic--including Sarah Palin. There is some consolation in that what it says of her might not be true (unfortunately, I find the top-10 lies to be largely irrelevant: Game Change has Sarah say she opposes stem-cell research in response to a vetting question--she had a more nuanced view--but does what she said in a vetting interview make a material difference? Did she object to sharing a stage with a pro-lifer when she had done so with the likes of Joe Lieberman? Maybe--maybe not--but the rebuttal's proof shows only that the might be, sometimes, inconsistent. As that applies to most human beings I know I am not sure that counts as a major lie on Game Change's part).

Game Change
The book, by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, covers the entire dramatic campaign including the war between Obama and Hillary and John Edward's disastrous scandal. Early critics of the HBO production suggested that the fact that they weren't focusing on Obama because his administration was such a disappointment. Having seen the 2 hour show, it's totally clear that they had to cut something somewhere or else have a 6-hour mini-series.

Their decision to focus on McCain-Palin might be because all the people involved are heavy contributors to the Obama campaign but I think there is another reason: other than, perhaps, Obama himself, Sarah Palin is simply the most charismatic person in the race. The McCain-Palin story is made for TV. The roll-out of Palin--the only time in which McCain's numbers exceeded Obama's--combines with her "fall" (wherein many observers were convinced she was not ready to be president--or worse) and the frenetic energy she drove within the base is a gripping story.

Game Change may be a lie. It may be propaganda--I have no real way to tell--but I can attest to this: it has made me think more fondly of Palin now than I did before I saw it. Julianne Moore plays her with out any of the meanness Tina Fey brought to the role (of course Fey was mocking her--but still there must have been a temptation by the Game Change crew to reflect her in the media's model rather than as the admittedly flawed but far-from-horrible person she comes off with here). Her family--harassed by the media--get perhaps the most sympathetic portrayal in the movie. McCain is shown as 100% real American hero without any trace of the temper the book suggests.

I can't really review this without saying something about Ed Harris (McCain) and Harrelson--so I'm going to say they shine. Producer Tom Hanks knows what he's doing. HBO breaks out the necessary shots--the scale. The show needs to look big to capture the breathtaking pageantry that the conventions and events have--and it does. It glitters.

By the end of the first hour and a half I was sort of hoping that the story would pull an Inglourious Basterds and have them win in the end.

On The Other Hand ...
On the other hand, the movie a the 3/4th's mark takes a turn when Sarah Palin "goes rogue." While she may not be what Game Change (and certainly her more rabid detractors) make her out to be the news reports--and more importantly, the budding conservative media of the time--showed us the genesis of the side of her that contributed to a certain toxicity. 'Death Panels' (which came later) is a great piece of framing but it isn't honest. I don't know what Sarah Palin herself thinks the Affordable Care Act puts in place--but her apologists's logic goes something like this:
  1. There will be limited health care resources--sometimes, perhaps especially--during end of life care. [TRUTH]
  2. Some mechanism must distribute those resources. [LOGICAL RESULT]
  3. In a market economy that would be the market. In a government run system some group, somehow, somewhere must make a decision as to that distribution. Whether in a personal case (the group decides on your health care) or in general (the group decides people above the age of 70 don't get donor hearts) a panel will make a decision. [LOGICAL EXTENSION]
  4. Someone will die because of this--somehow, somewhere--ergo: a Death Pannel.
But this is also political manipulation. The image it paints is of dark-robed figures holding life and death decisions over a hapless populace. There is nothing at all like this in the Affordable Care Act. If Palin knew it, it's emotional, heart-stopping propaganda. If she didn't, then what the movie alleges about her comprehension-level is, in fact, true. This, it turns out, is an important distinction.

At the end of Game Change comes a point of drama I am not sure I believe: a staffer--one of Palin's handlers--at the time when it is clear John McCain has lost, comes to Woody Harrelson and tearfully confesses to him, in the manner of one confessing a murder, that she did not vote--she couldn't, it's implied--not with Palin on the ticket.

During the movie we see staffers, including Palin, suggest using Jeramiah Wright against Obama--McCain refuses. He references the 2000 primary and having been accused of having a black child out of wedlock (it was his adopted daughter) by the Bush campaign machine. He says there's a dark side to American politics and he won't go there.

The movie's sympathies are clear: McCain--and, for the large part, the McCain campaign--are men of moral character. We know this is true from reality: McCain did correct people who said Obama was an Arab--he upbraided a radio host who insisted on emphasizing Obama's middle name.Whatever McCain's flaws--either in character or his tactics--he had a personal line and he would not cross it.

Today, on conservative blogs, McCain is mocked--dismissed--sometimes even reviled--for not "having fought." For not having given in to that dark side. The posters often say that The Left--or Obama--or the Obama Machine--will use those tactics against them. They say that The Left will stop at nothing so they need a candidate who is not afraid to make the hard choices. They need a candidate who will fight with every blotch of mud available.

I'm left wondering as one memorable poster did: at what point--if the both the left and the right are willing to engage in a tactic--if attacking Romney, for example, on Bain Capital is something a major Republican candidate does--as well as (in theory, at this point) an incumbent Democrat--or implying that John McCain had a black baby out of wedlock--does a tactic stop being a Leftist one ... and just becomes an American one.

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