Monday, July 29, 2013

Game Change Reveals Much About Today's Political Landscape

Theodore White's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Making of a President 1960 was a groundbreaking behind-the-scenes look at the drama that is called a U.S. presidential election. The scope of White's book extended from the beginning of the primaries to Nixon's concession call to JFK and the aftermath of the election. White's approach and the fair-handed treatment made it possible for him to have enough access and cred to follow up with sequels in 1964 and 1968, all of them well-written and dramatic, even when you know the outcome of the races.

So it is with the HBO made-for-television drama Game Change. Though we know the outcome it is a compelling film and a worthy use of your time some evening.

The story begins with John McCain (Ed Harris) being given the lowdown on how far he is behind Barack Obama in the polls. McCain is getting his shot at the presidency but he really has no chance if the polls are half right. He needs to find a running mate who will help him in two critical areas: to win the enthusiasm of the conservative right wing of the party and improve his standing with women voters. Though McCain wants Joe Lieberman for reasons he believes valuable for the country, the pollsters explain that the game would be over before it started. McCain gives in, and our story begins.

Problem: How find a running mate who is a woman and a conservative and vet her in five days? Though this would even be tough assignment for superman, it falls to campaign strategist Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson) to make it happen.

Vetting a candidate is one of those things that takes time to do properly. The primaries may be tiresome and tedious at times, but the process does result in some weeding. Skeletons in the closet can't be hid forever. With so much at stake the selection of a good running mate, who is an asset and not a liability, is a must.

The national media can be ruthless. When George McGovern selected Thomas Eagleton as a running mate, the media tore him to shreds for having seen a psychologist for "counselling" and thus implying he would be too unstable to assume responsibilities in the Oval Office during the Cold War. Now it was Sarah Palin's turn. 

The scope of this film extends from the selection of Sarah Palin (Julianne Moore) as John McCain's running mate through to the 2008 concession speech. McCain knew from the getgo that this was a "Hail Mary" play, but his determination to win pushed him to make the call. Unfortunately, the vetting is delegated and the two teams that worked with her each assumed the other had dug into her foreign policy credentials. Turns out, she didn't even know many of the basics of International Affairs 101.

What was it I liked about this film? First, I felt it treated John McCain and Sarah Palin with respect. It would have been very easy to create a much more brutal film. Instead, the screenwriters showed us the challenges of contemporary political reality when it comes to selecting or being a candidate. Second, though Palin was over her head in our laser-intense national spotlight, she often performed magnificently and had a charisma made for our times. Third, the casting and acting was exceptional.

Theodore White's book showed in detail how the televised debates between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy changed the momentum in that campaign. Though the title of this film is Game Change, the real game changer this past half century has been broadcast media. Ronald Reagan was a master of the game as was Bill Clinton. Obama and Sarah Palin had this in common: both had limited experience but each had the ability to project something as performers. They had star power.

Let's not forget one more game changer. With social media and YouTube, unless you're on your game at all times your worst moments will go viral and never stop biting you. It's a harsh reality of today's political scene.

Ultimately, the centrist McCain may have been the ablest candidate, but in our brave new world we want rock stars. 

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