By FRAZIER MOORE, Associated Press TV critic
NEW YORK - A certain segment of the U.S. population will presumably shun "Game Change."
As a warts-and-all portrayal of the 2008 campaign of GOP presidential candidate John McCain and his vice presidential running mate, Sarah Palin, this HBO film (premiering Saturday) has raised suspicions, and hackles, among Palin loyalists. Surely its mission is to trash her, they contend.
Meanwhile, viewers from the other end of the political spectrum will tune in gleefully expecting the same thing: an evisceration of the world's most famous hockey mom.
Maybe both sides would do well to take a break from their respective partisan assumptions.
For starters, "Game Change" captures three outstanding performances. Woody Harrelson is solid in the role of Steve Schmidt, McCain's bullet-headed senior campaign strategist, who champions the idea of plucking from obscurity the charismatic Alaska governor to bolster McCain's sagging campaign, then lives to regret it.
Ed Harris is splendid as McCain, who manfully struggles but wistfully fails to keep his campaign on the high road.
And Julianne Moore does the near-impossible, inhabiting her role so flipping perfectly (as Palin might put it) that the viewer forgets Sarah Palin wasn't somehow persuaded to star in "Game Change" herself. It's a remarkable feat on Moore's part, all by itself sufficient reason to watch.
Granted, "Game Change" presents Palin in an often unflattering light. But the larger point of the film is to explore the win-at-any-cost extremes of the modern-day political scene. The film doesn't question Palin's worthiness as a candidate so much as the cynical strategy for choosing her: The campaign needs a rock star to compete with the electrifying Democratic hopeful, Barack Obama. However unprepared she is for what lies ahead, she is chosen to help put McCain in the White House, not to take over for him there if that became necessary.
In short, Palin as depicted is as much a victim as an agent of a process that wasn't so much afflicted by warts as it was downright leprous.
"It wasn't a campaign," Harrelson-as-Schmidt laments when it's all over. "It was a bad reality show."
The film was adapted from "Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime," the 2010 bestseller by political writers John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, both of whom served as the film's consultants. The book was supplemented by some two dozen interviews with campaign insiders by Danny Strong, who wrote the script. (Palin and McCain declined to speak to him.)
"This is not a partisan film," Strong said earlier this week. "It's the story of how a campaign works, and decisions that are made to win.
"I feel like we told the most multidimensional story we could possibly tell in a two-hour movie," he went on. "It's the story of what happened in the McCain-Palin campaign, and how it changed these people, and also changed the country to a certain extent. That's what we've dramatized."
Four years after "Recount," their HBO film about the disputed results of the 2000 presidential vote, "Game Change" reunites Strong (also a successful actor, with "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Mad Men" among his credits) with director Jay Roach for their newest film examining the electoral process.
"'Game Change' is intended mostly to raise questions about the way the process works," said Roach (whose directing credits also include the films "Austin Powers in Goldmember," ''Meet the Fockers" and "Dinner for Schmucks").
"How could a campaign get itself in a situation where they're having to vet a vice presidential candidate in five days, and in so much secrecy that they can't do anything like their normal interview process? And what did it feel like when the campaign started working so well" - Palin wowed the multitudes at the Republican National Convention - "and then how did they handle it when it started going off the rails" - notably her disastrous interview with Katie Couric a few weeks later.
"A two-hour film can't answer a lot of questions," said Roach. "But if this film raises them, that, for me, would be a big success."
Along the way, "Game Change" shows Palin in various stages: As the instant savior of the ticket. Then, when her lack of preparation catches up with her (turns out she doesn't know why North and South Korea are separate countries, doesn't know what the Fed is, and declares that we're fighting the war in Iraq because Saddam Hussein attacked us on 9/11), she buckles under the pressure. Then, as she rebounds and clinches her star status, she lashes out at campaign operatives whom she feels are cramping her style.
The film is meant not to chronicle her flaws, but to humanize her, Roach said: "The more we looked at her, the more I empathized with her."
In the film, Moore-as-Palin is seen interviewed by ABC's Charlie Gibson as she declares that the Russians are "our next-door neighbors. And you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska."
In the next scene, Palin is stricken by video of Tina Fey impersonating her on "Saturday Night Live," chirping, "I can see Russia from my house!"
Said Roach, "It gives you a conflicted emotion: You're laughing, again, at Tina Fey's depiction of her, but then you're asked to connect with how much it might hurt her to have someone mocking her that effectively."
And what about when, in the wake of those devastating interviews, she faced Joe Biden at the vice presidential debate: "Imagine being told, 'Now we need you to debate a senator who's been in office for three decades, and deliver some sort of knockout punch that will levitate us above Obama'! I would be in a fetal position inside of a bathroom," Roach laughed, "and you'd have to kick the door down to drag me out."
McCain, of course, lost the race for the White House. But as "Game Change" reminds us, Palin emerged from the campaign stronger than anyone in the Republican camp.
In the film, she and McCain part with his voicing this sadder-but-wiser advice: "You're one of the leaders of the party now, Sarah. Don't get co-opted by Limbaugh and the other extremists. They'll destroy the party if you let them."
Flash forward nearly four years: On Super Tuesday this week, in the turmoil of the 2012 GOP primary season, the real Sarah Palin was asked by CNN if she would let her name be placed in nomination for president at the convention, assuming no candidate is decided by then.
"I wouldn't close that door," she replied.
Could a sequel to "Game Change" be in the offing?