I’ll admit to you that my impression of Sarah Palin is entirely negative. I don’t think anyone’s had a more malignant impact on America in the last decade. At a time of extreme difficulty and complexity, when innovation and intelligence should be at a premium, she embodies the pious dumbing-down that’s driving the country into the ditch. Her instincts are hypocritical and self-serving; her lack of empathy and capacity for reflection is chilling. Frankly, I think she’s a terrible person. And Tina Fey’s high-profile caricature of her, for suggesting we might regard this monster with even a scintilla of grudging affection, seems to me an inadvertent exercise in collaboration.
The new movie Game Change, currently playing on HBO, dramatizes how Palin came to national prominence; it doesn’t contain a lot of new information, but what could ever adequately explain such a leap into madness? In the summer of 2008, Republican nominee John McCain is behind in the polls, his Democratic opponent Barack Obama capturing a much bigger portion of the national imagination. With time running out to select a vice-presidential candidate, his aides persuade McCain of the need for a game-changing selection; to put up someone who’ll excite the Republican base and, crucially, reduce his polling disadvantage among women. Their research (as depicted here, consisting primarily of Google and YouTube searches) leads them to the governor of Alaska, highly inexperienced (only in her second year in office) but otherwise hitting most of the right buttons. Most of the usual vetting process goes out the window, for example, no one ever tries to gauge Palin’s knowledge of international issues: the audacity of the idea sweeps them all away, and she gets the nod. For a while it seems to work, then it just starts getting worse and worse. By Election Day, even one of the campaign’s senior staff can’t bring herself to vote for the ticket.
The movie is primarily an amiable work of assembly, expertly splicing the actors into the real-life footage, no doubt condensing things drastically for dramatic purposes, but providing an effective springboard for reliving the wretchedness of it all (the director is Jay Roach, best known for Meet the Parents and the Austin Powers movies; he pulled off something similar with Recount, about the 2000 Bush/Gore election). It treats McCain (played by Ed Harris) exceptionally kindly, never really holding him responsible for the colossal recklessness of being willing to put such a person a heartbeat away (a 74-year-old heartbeat at that) from the most powerful job in the world. It even allows him to go out on a note of sad prophecy, warning Palin not to be swept up by the Limbaugh wing of the party (an exercise in futility of course). Woody Harrelson expertly embodies Steve Schmidt, the man at the centre of the campaign, confirming the remark I made the other week about the actor’s indispensability.
But they’re both a sideshow of course. Julianne Moore plays Palin, quite effectively, although I’m not sure the role lends itself to particularly great acting. If the film has any revelations, they’re all about how the woman was even less capable than we knew. She ignores all attempts to prepare her for the infamous interview with Katie Couric, spending the sessions obsessing almost catatonically on her multiple Blackberries. Her ignorance, bolstered by a lifetime of intellectual laziness and steadfast lack of curiosity, is boundless: she doesn’t know what “the Fed” refers to, she thinks the British queen is the functional equivalent of the US president, she can’t distinguish the war in Afghanistan from that in Iraq (this last one is particular notable perhaps, given that her son was serving in Iraq at the time). She becomes obsessed with incidentals, such as how the national exposure might be affecting her poll numbers in Alaska. Someone in the movie speculates about her mental stability – an entirely credible concern based on what we see here at least.
Of course, the situation would have strained anyone. Despite the warnings, she could never have predicted the extent of the scrutiny into every aspect of her past (even including, if you recall, an allegation that her youngest child was actually born to her daughter Bristol). The movie emphasizes her straightforward love and dependence on her family. And it also makes clear her undoubted strengths – her ability to connect with certain people in a way that feels unprecedented to them, the way she intuitively raises her game in front of a camera.
But this only points to Palin’s most sinister aspect. Early on, before the heat gets turned up, Schmidt remarks on how totally unfazed she seems by all this; she responds simply that it’s God’s plan. She looks at the opportunity to become vice president much as you or I might regard an opportunity to visit a nice restaurant for a free lunch. Of course, thinking one could run for such high office virtually demands a colossal degree of arrogance, powered by certainty in the rightness of one’s grasp of the moment and of the necessary prescriptions. But Palin’s agenda doesn’t seem to extend beyond her vacuous ramblings about freedom and her reflexive antipathy to anything proposed by the Democrats. She believes herself inherently entitled to power, and therefore exempt from any requirement to earn it or to deploy it with respect for its consequences. The implications of this seem to me horrifying.
Game Change might be seen as a contemporary version of Being There, in which Peter Sellers plays a simple-minded gardener whose incomprehension is taken as grave profundity, possibly capable of elevating him to the Presidency. Even that simple synopsis tells you a lot about how things have degraded in the thirty years since then though, because being perceived as being profound would likely mark someone now as an unelectable elitist. As we all know (and expressing daily gratitude for this wouldn’t be excessive), Palin wasn’t ultimately a game changer for the election; Obama won fairly comfortably. But she certainly contributed to changing the larger game, to the poisonous divisiveness that so limited Obama’s capacity for action, and left the country drifting further into self-destruction. And if her prominence is thankfully fading at last (at least she had the wherewithal to perceive she couldn’t win the 2012 nomination on her own merits, or maybe it was more about sticking with the easy TV money), it’s only because a new gallery of uglies has supplanted her. Listening to these people obsess on such topics as women’s access to contraception, it’s like watching a deranged beast chewing on its own decaying flesh. Game Change only hints at what lay ahead. But then, why would we need a movie to show us that, when we have our own eyes, ears and brains.