I have a bad habit, with movies. I don’t get to see them as often as I used to — I don’t really cover them much for work these days, and they’re expensive to see recreationally — so when I see one that I like even a little, I tend to obsess over it. I watched Black Swan about ten times, if that means anything to you. I knew it wasn’t actually that good, but I couldn’t stop going back over it, and analyzing it, to figure out why.
The latest victim of my weird, obsessive movie-watching is “Game Change,” on HBO, which I’ve watched three times. I don’t think it’s a good movie; there are points, in fact, where I find it to be a fairly terrible movie, both in terms of its politics and in terms of its basic craft. But it makes me uncomfortable, in the ways that I like movies to make me uncomfortable. In fact, it’s made me uncomfortable in entirely new, and terrifying, ways.
At a certain point, in this movie, I found myself identifying with Sarah Palin. Not just sympathizing, not just empathizing: Full-on, gut-level IDENTIFYING. With Sarah Palin. A woman I’ve spent most of the past four years despising.
Now: I’m a fan of empathy, if not of Sarah Palin. And I’m of the opinion that any movie that can get you to feel this way, that can actually crack open that level of compassion for someone you actively hate, deserves close consideration. I have an entire meditation practice, so that I can cultivate those feelings about people I dislike, and for the most part, it doesn’t work. I sit there, attempting to feel compassion for some blogger dude who freaked out on me for being too feminist, and I just crack up laughing. This movie got me to feel a level of kindness, for a despised person, that I can rarely feel.
But also, close consideration reveals “Game Change” to be a fairly sexist, irresponsible, silly movie. So, if you’ll bear with me for a moment, I want to talk about this. From both sides.
1. The Personal
“Game Change,” on its most basic level, is the story of a girl getting in over her head, the fault for which is only half her own. She’s tapped for a job she’s not ready to perform, everyone (including her) assumes that she’s ready to perform it, and the rest of the movie is comprised of both sides figuring out the extent of their fuck-up, and learning to hate each other. It’s remarkably painful to watch.
The McCain camp assumes that she can play the game of national politics; she does, too, because no-one really bothers to explain its rules to her. They tell her that things get “ugly,” but not what “ugly” actually means. She was able to get elected in Alaska, she could make people like her in Alaska, she faced a “tough primary” where things got “ugly” in Alaska: Why shouldn’t she be able to handle it now? When her e-mails are hacked, or when she watches her daughter break down because the cable news “won’t leave her alone,” you can tell that she’s not only wounded, but stunned.
“Any adult who makes fun of a teenage girl is a terrible person,” she snaps. And that’s entirely true. But it doesn’t help her. Things are ugly, and they’re ugly in a way she’d never anticipated, and there’s nothing she can do to make it stop.
Similarly, the McCain campaign assumes she’s qualified for the job, and that they know all there is to know, because they haven’t bothered to ask the necessary questions. Palin is vetted by two groups, and each group assumes that the important questions have already been asked by the other. So when it turns out that her husband was a member of a secessionist party, or that she thinks we’re at war with Iraq because “Saddam Hussein attacked us on 9/11,” both parties are equally humiliated. A lot is made of the fact that Palin is undereducated, but it’s hard not to feel that the true stupidity came from McCain’s team, who had every reason to know better.
Each side blames the other, and the relationship breaks down. They start treating her like a child — feeding her lines to memorize so that she can make it through interviews and debates, keeping her at arm’s length (McCain barely speaks to her), talking down to her when they do talk. She starts feeling that they’ve underestimated her actual talents, and that she can’t trust them; if she’s going to get through this in one piece, she concludes, she’s going to have to act on her own. Each party blames the other for an entirely mutual fuck-up. No-one knows how to talk about it, or fix it. So things get ugly, and uglier, and uglier, until everyone is screaming at each other, and no-one trusts anyone, and they’re essentially running two campaigns: The campaign to get John McCain elected, and the campaign to make sure that Sarah Palin still has a career after the race is over. Only one of those campaigns is successful, and it’s notable that the successful campaign is run entirely by Sarah Palin.
In this movie, Sarah Palin is shown to be remarkably good — maybe even genius-level good — at two things. She’s an extremely talented public speaker, who has an uncanny knack for reflecting and voicing her supporters’ concerns and feelings, without making them feel condescended to or left out. (“She’s talking to me,” says one supporter, early in the movie. “No-one ever talks to me.”) She’s also extremely good at interacting with her supporters and her voter base. Throughout the movie, she keeps returning to the subject of Alaska: Why are there no lawn signs in Alaska? Have they done a poll on her approval rating in Alaska? What are the numbers in the Alaska poll? People interpret this — we, the viewers, are meant to interpret this — as irrational, irrelevant, and weird. But it’s really not: She was good at Alaska, she had a ridiculously high approval rating in Alaska, and in Alaska, she could use her actual talents to get things done. She obsesses over Alaska because it was the last place her talents actually served her; she’s scared, and isolated, and powerless, and she clings to her last memory of safety and control.
The McCain campaign, on the other hand, has no idea how to use her. They’re feeding her lines, to pull her voice in line with the campaign’s voice and to cover up for her knowledge gaps, and they’re keeping her away from the outlets and one-on-one connections she knows how to use. She can’t succeed, and she also can’t help them, because they just don’t know what to do with her. And everyone involved hates everyone else, because no-one is clear on the nature of the fuck-up. “You never LISTEN,” one advisor shouts at her. “You have RUINED MY REPUTATION,” Palin shouts back. And this is well before things really hit the skids.
This is where sympathy begins to kick in. It can only kick in when I view these people as characters in a movie, and not as actual people, connected to history; if I think about the history, of course, I get angry, because I was there, and so were you, and these people are all so fucking awful. But when I do allow myself to just view these people as characters — to accept the way the movie tries to soften them, whether or not it’s true — that terrifying sympathy kicks in. Because “Game Change” has a surprising, and very convincing, thesis as to why its version of Sarah Palin is so very good at public speaking and meeting with supporters: She just really, really, really needs people to like her.
Politically minded reviewers have called the Palin character “narcissistic.” You can find support for that theory in the real-life Sarah Palin, certainly. But I don’t think you can find it in this movie. This Palin isn’t self-aggrandizing; she’s needy. She bases her self-concept entirely on how other people react to her. When she watches Tina Fey portray her on Saturday Night Live, she’s mortified; when she sees people criticizing her on the news, she breaks down. When it gets really bad, she can’t speak, or look anyone in the eye; she just folds in on herself and stops functioning. And when she’s trying to stave off a breakdown, she’s stuck in a petty rage that no doubt feels like strength; she hates the world that hates her, because that’s her only way to convince herself that they’re wrong, that she still has worth.
But when she’s with her supporters, or when she receives praise, or when she’s with people who actually do like her, such as her family — which is rare, due to the campaign; the movie barely touches on this, what it means for her to be separated from her new baby, or what it means that her son has recently deployed to Iraq, but it’s an ever-present part of the subtext — she’s an entirely different person. You can see her sucking it in, like oxygen; becoming more centered, and charming, and confident, and functional.
At one point, after her debate with Biden, the movie shows her watching late coverage, and landing on Pat Buchanan praising her for being “attractive” and “personable.” She can’t look away. It’s the first nice thing she’s heard about herself in months, and she takes it in with terrible hunger. She looks at Pat fucking Buchanan like a starving person looking at a plate full of cheeseburgers.
And that’s where my heart breaks for her. The character, anyway. Because (a) how lonely does a human being have to get, before she can base her self-worth on a sexist comment from Pat Buchanan? And (b) this is the point, in the movie, where Sarah Palin turns decisively to the dark side. This is where she starts pressuring the McCain campaign to go after Obama on Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright, this is where she inserts racist dogwhistling into her speeches and eggs on the scary, violent racism of the crowd, this is where she gives birth to the Birthers and the Tea Party. And for one second — in this movie, which is not the history that harms the people I care about — you can actually see why. Because some old racist on TV said he liked her. And no-one else likes her. She commits historically evil acts because she’s lonely, and sad, and wants to be loved. It’s the worst, smallest, pettiest, most inexcusable excuse for evil you will ever hear. And most of the evil that I’ve witnessed, in my life, has been committed for the same reason.
And that’s not even the worst part of all this. The worst part is (c): She doesn’t get that Pat Buchanan doesn’t actually like her. She didn’t actually do well, in that debate; she just didn’t bomb, which is what everyone had expected her to do. The Republican talking heads are praising her, but not because they like her; they’re praising her to get people to vote Republican. But Sarah Palin assumes it’s sincerely felt, and about her, personally. The same way she assumes that all the criticism, the SNL sketches and e-mail hacks and fake pregnancy rumors, are sincerely felt and about her personally: She’s wounded to the point of collapse by these things, because she doesn’t seem to understand that those are also about resistance to Republican leadership, not her, and that at least some of it would be happening to any person in her position. (Every VP candidate gets an SNL sketch or seven. Watching Palin shake with rage, viewing hers, you can tell that this simply never occurs to her.) She falls apart, she commits to doing evil things, she alienates everyone, just because she wants those people on the TV to love her again. She doesn’t understand that they never loved her in the first place. No matter how paranoid or angry she gets, Sarah Palin, the Character, simply never, ever understands how profoundly she is being used.
I don’t know. I think most of the performers I know could identify with this, and many of the writers; that specific variety of neediness is not uncommon, among people who choose to live in the public eye. I think most insecure people could identify with it, too. I think anyone who’s been expected to represent a movement, and who’s had to come to terms with how little they really matter to that movement, could identify. And so, honestly, could anyone who’s gotten too much public attention, too fast — that’s where my identification kicked in, anyway. It horrified me. But for five seconds, I could feel total compassion for someone that I usually view as an enemy. As a human experience, if not a political one, that must have some kind of worth.
2. The Political
Of course, it’s entirely possible that I can only feel this way about Sarah Palin The Character because the movie she’s in is such a big, steaming pile of disingenuous crap. Most of my praise, for this movie, is simply praise for Julianne Moore’s performance as Palin. This is an actors’-showcase kind of movie: The script is frequently clunky and exposition-heavy, and the direction isn’t particularly clever. (Sometimes it’s just plain bad; the movie has a particularly grating habit of scoring “happy” scenes to YEE-HOO HAPPY TIMES POP COUNTRY, so as to signify (a) Palin being a “hick” and (b) YEE-HOO HAPPY TIMES. It’s very embarrassing.) You watch this movie to watch the actors, particularly Moore, doing what they do. And she’s very good; most of the subtext I’m describing comes through twitches and expressions on her face, not through the script. The other actors in the movie are also talented, and also trying very hard. But they’re clearly not quite as good as Moore, because you can’t help noticing the movie’s false notes when they’re on screen.
Let’s start with McCain. John McCain, in real life, is a nasty, bad-tempered, misogynist old man who tells rape jokes, verbally abuses his wife in public, and once followed a woman down the street screaming obscenities at her because she didn’t respond to his flirtations. Meanwhile, Ed Harris plays him as some bizarre Republican Obi-Wan Kenobi. He’s kind and paternal and noble and wise, he grimaces and shakes his head at this nasty, undignified “politics” business that he has for some inexplicable reason spent most of his life doing, and he only blows into the movie once every half hour or so, pretty much exclusively to give meaningful speeches about “the dark side of American populism” (SPOILER: It’s racism), “Limbaugh and the extremists,” the importance of running a “campaign his kids can be proud of,” and pretty much everything else a liberal, white, male audience would be expected to applaud him for. By the end of the movie, it’s surprising that his appearances are not actually marked by heavenly light and the sound of angelic choirs. The fact that this guy hates women — which might account for the fact that he didn’t bother to hold Palin to a high professional standard, or to keep in touch with her once he’d hired her — is tastefully edited out, either because the filmmakers don’t consider McCain’s expressed sexism to be an important problem, or because they need to play McCain as a hero to underscore their portrait of Palin as the campaign’s chief villain.
Similarly, McCain’s advisors — especially Steve Schmidt, as played by Woody Harrelson, doing a surprisingly not-ridiculous job — are unilaterally played as wise, tolerant, intelligent, anti-racist statesmen, who hate Dick Cheney and fear the proto-Birthers who call Obama an “Arab” at their rallies. The only person in the movie who’s shown to embrace the campaign’s ugliness — or, at least, to be comfortable with it — is Palin. I have a distinctly hard time believing that every single one of these established, experienced political operatives just happened to run a historically racist campaign on accident. For that matter, I have trouble believing that anyone who devotes his or her life to electing Republican presidents is a historically noble or admirable person. Yet McCain’s aides are invariably played as noble, admirable, nice, competent people, who bear little to no responsibility either for the ugliness of the campaign or for that campaign’s failure. The movie can only accomplish this by tap-dancing around their actual politics. And again, this tap dance is clearly performed so that Palin can emerge as the only unlikable person on the ticket.
This is particularly aggravating when you consider that there’s only one other major female character in the movie. (And no characters of color, that I can see, other than the characters spliced in via news footage. To be fair, one of those guys does turn out to play a pretty major role in the movie’s conclusion?) Sarah Paulson portrays former White House Communications Director Nicolle Wallace as a soft-spoken, dewy-eyed, squishy-little-bunny sort of woman, who speaks in whispers and subtle hints and just wants to be nice and help, you know? This isn’t how the actual Wallace comes across in interviews, and it’s unlikely that a woman with her credentials could afford to roll this way in her day-to-day life. But it’s clear, here, that her gentle and feminine nature is set up as a foil to the only other woman in the room. And, accordingly, Moore’s “bitchiest” scenes — the ones where she’s yelling, or making big demands, or retreating into stony silence — are played against Paulson.
Maybe it’s how it actually happened, and it’s definitely a nod to the fact that women have always hated Palin on a more visceral and personal level than men. But it’s also hard to escape the idea that it’s done this way to show that Wallace is how a woman is supposed to act — sweet, friendly, quiet, smart but too submissive and considerate to make a big deal out of it — and that Palin is a villain, not because she’s unqualified for the Vice-Presidency, but because she’s not appropriately feminine.
Which, no offense to the squishy-bunny-ladies of the world — feminism is not about shaming you, ladies! It is only for making sure that not all of us have to resemble you! — but fuck that noise. Not least because it is precisely that sort of sexism which is responsible for Sarah Palin being nominated in the first place, rather than a less “hot” or “feminine” female candidate.
The film, for the most part, soft-plays the issue of sexism, both Palin’s internalized misogyny (her anti-choice extremism is barely touched on; the cynicism and political expediency of her “glass ceiling” speech is barely mentioned; at no point does anyone have to pay for her own rape kit) and the liberal sexism which greeted her. There are no Photoshops of Palin in a bikini, there’s no “Naylin’ Paylin,” there’s no Bill Maher calling her a “cunt.”
The rare moments when the movie does deal with the subject are often its best. For example, its dramatization of how the McCain team decided on Palin as VP: They decide they need “a woman.” Then, one aide compiles a list of Republican women, crosses the pro-choice women off his list, and surfs YouTube clips of the rest until he finds the hottest one. Amazingly, this strategy does not work to find the most qualified candidate! I know, right?
Or, another brilliant little moment: When Schmidt complains to the press that the attacks on Palin are “sexist,” he does it over his shoulder, while pissing into a men’s room urinal. Accordingly, the only reporters who have access to him in that moment are men. GET IT? Complaining about the media’s sexism while perpetuating it? GET IT? DO YOU? It’s a throw-away moment — literally only a second or two — but it speaks to the cynicism behind Palin’s appointment better than any other scene.
Or, there’s this exchange:
SCHMIDT: She’s becoming completely irrational.
SCHMIDT: I hate to say this. But have we considered that she might not be mentally stable?
Of course, a group of men who are mishandling and failing to communicate with a woman decide that her unhappiness is pathological, because doing so allows them to evade their own responsibility for it. They spend several scenes plotting to secretly evaluate her female hysteria, and as soon as she gets to see her family again, she’s fine.
Which says something. But the movie’s handling of this topic is so inconsistent that I’m not sure the movie recognizes what it’s saying — whether it’s critiquing this sexism, or merely reflecting it. In fact, that’s my problem with the movie as a whole.
Because Sarah Palin is terrible. She’s a woman-hating woman, she’s racist, she’s irresponsible and manipulative, she plays to the worst parts of people in order to aggrandize herself and control them, she’s hateful and cruel and criminally irresponsible and enjoys killing things from helicopters. I’m not convinced that she’s stupid — she has a habit of getting what she wants, and of staying afloat while the people around her go down, which takes more than a little calculation — but she’s certainly not a person who considers it terribly important to seem smart. All of these things are true.
But, until we live in a post-sexist society, it may be impossible to hate Sarah Palin fairly. Men, in particular, tend to see Palin through the fogged glass of sexism, and therefore to aim wide of the mark in their hatred, fulminating against some generic hick or bimbo or slut or bitch rather than the actual, crappy person that she is. And, despite Moore’s amazing performance, which humanizes Palin in a way that Palin herself has never managed to pull off, the movie still seems caught in telling the tale of Palin The Bimbo or Palin The Bitch, or, now, Palin The Hysteric.
I felt sympathy for Sarah Palin, watching Game Change. Real, deep, deeply uncomfortable sympathy, which at times crossed the border into frankly terrifying identification. But I felt it, often, against the grain of the movie. I will never agree with this woman. But I’m still waiting for the movie that portrays an actual truth about her that I can get behind: That plays the story of Palin as the story of a bad person, and not just another bad girl.