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Featured Blu-ray / DVD Review: Game Change

January 6th, 2013

Game Change - Buy from Amazon: DVD or Blu-ray Combo Pack

The 2008 presidential campaign was a strange story. It was the first time in more than 50 years there would be no incumbent on either ticket and this meant both the Democrats and the Republicans had open primaries and this meant there were lots of contenders and lots of drama. One could write dozens of books and movies about the various stories of the 2008 campaign. Game Change tells one of many stories from that election focusing on McCain's decision to pick Sarah Palin as their Vice Presidential candidate. Is it worth checking out if you are a political junkie? Is it worth checking out even if you are not?

Before I get to the movie, I should point out that I had mixed expectations. Given the number of awards the TV movie had won, I was expecting a really good movie. Given the amount of time I spend on political blogs, I wasn't expecting to learn anything really new. For instance, I knew who Sarah Palin was before she was selected as McCain's V.P. When I heard rumors she was being vetted for V.P., I laughed. The number one rule in picking a V.P. is do no harm. Sarah Palin was dealing with a scandal and I didn't think her temperament would stand up to a national spotlight. She had a reputation for standing up to fellow Republicans, which some said was an indication of an independent streak; however, in reality she was known to take revenge of Republicans who didn't support her when she was running for office. I figured McCain would pick Pawlenty if he just needed a little boost over the top, or Huckabee if he needed help with the base. When he picked Palin, I knew his campaign was sunk.

The Movie

The film begins with Steve Schmidt being interviewed after the election and he's asked about the selection of Sarah Palin for Vice President, why he did it, and if he would do it again. The film immediately flashes back to very early in the election process when John McCain was getting beat-up in the polls and in the press and how he reached out to Steve Schmidt. After getting some key advice, McCain hires Schmidt and wins the primary. However, that's just the first leg of the race to the White House.

In the general election, John McCain will have to go up against Barack Obama. Obama was able to pull in 200,000 people, in Berlin. It was generating record donations and he was up by a huge amount in the polls. (In fact, according to the movie, Obama had a bigger lead than I remembered it.) McCain had yet to pick a running mate and that announcement usually comes with a bounce in the polls. He wants to pick Lieberman, but as Rick Davis, one of his advisers explains, he can't pick a pro-choice Jewish Democrat, because the base already thinks McCain isn't conservative enough. McCain needs to pick someone who will excite the base, win back independents, close the gender gap, and distance himself from the Bush administration. They need a game changer and picking yet another white guy for Vice President won't do it.

Rick Davis finds an interview Governor Sarah Palin did on the Charlie Rose show and he's very impressed. She has poise, she has confidence, she has star quality about her. A little research into her yields even better news. She's very pro-life, she has a son who will soon deploy into Iraq, she's the most popular governor in the United States and stood up to her party and the oil lobby, so she clearly appealed to independents, as well as the base. She was very new to politics. She had only been Governor of Alaska for 18 months, but that did mean she had no ties to the Bush administration. She seemed to fit all four criteria. When John McCain met with Palin, the pair hit it off right away and McCain thinks he found a kindred spirit. Steve Schmidt warns McCain that there are a lot of unknowns with Palin and if she backfires, it will sink the campaign. Jamey Sheridan, another adviser, warns McCain that she'll been seen as a political maneuver and by potentially putting someone so inexperienced one heartbeat away from the presidency, he will not only lose the election, but his reputation.

There are some initial hiccups, but when Sarah Palin delivers her speech at the Republican Nation Convention, it's a huge hit. Suddenly she's the biggest name in politics and the darling of the right. She helps draw in huge crowds and revitalizes the McCain campaign. In fact, she becomes a bigger draw than John McCain is and outshines the presidential candidate. However, there are troubling signs and some in the campaign worry that Palin is all style and no substance. Nicolle Wallace is given the job of getting the governor up to speed, but it becomes increasingly clear this is a hopeless task. Despite the best efforts, Sarah Palin is unprepared for the media scrutiny and one disastrous interview follows another and soon she's the butt of late night humor. Will she be able to recover? Will the campaign recover?

Game Change won five Emmys, including one going to Danny Strong for Best Screenplay for a Miniseries, Movie or Special. He also got one for Best Miniseries or Movie. Jonathan from Buffy The Vampire Slayer has two Primetime Emmys. That's really cool, but it is a little strange that he went from one of the best recurring characters on a genre show to the go-to guy for TV movies about presidential campaigns. (He previously won a WGA award for Recount, which was about the 2008 presidential election.) It's almost like we are going to find out Danny Strong actually learned how to cast that spell his character cast in the episode, Superstar.

That's enough geeking out. How is the actual movie? It's damn good. I'm not surprised it won Best TV Movie, Best Script, Directing, Lead Actress, etc. In fact, I'm surprised it didn't win more awards. (Woody Harrelson was robbed.) Even though I knew nearly all of the details of what happened in real life, this film was still incredibly engaging. It was so well written and the actors were simply phenomenal. The film also does a very good job of using this event to talk about modern politics in a more general way. The 24-hour news cycle and YouTube have changed politics and now more than ever the news is more about entertainment than information. In this way, Sarah Palin is both a product of this environment and a victim.

That's a good segue to my final point. There is a question if this film is fair to Sarah Palin. A lot of her supporters think it was a hatchet job, but she does come off as sympathetic a lot of the time. As John McCain says in the film, "We threw her into the deep end without a life preserver." The film does a good job of showing her to be a woman who was pushed into the spotlight without proper preparation. She doesn't have any real experience on the national stage and almost no international experience, so it is not a surprise she doesn't know a lot of about policy matters. On the other hand, the film also does a good job of showing Sarah Palin as someone who not only lacks experience, but lacks basic knowledge, and is unwilling / incapable of learning. It also shows her as someone who let the fame and adoration go to her head. The film does ignore some of the significant blunders McCain made during the campaign that were unrelated to Sarah Palin. Suspending his campaign to help deal with the economic crisis and Phil Gramm describing the economic problems as all in our minds and calling America a, "Nation of whiners", are two prime examples. One could look at this omissions as signs of bias. Then again, it is hammered home that the McCain campaign was dead in the water before he choose Sarah Palin, so she hardly cost him the victory. Overall, it is fair, at least as far as I can tell.

The Extras

There are two extras on the DVD and the Blu-ray. The first is Creating a Candidate, which us a seven-minute featurette on the real life political campaign trail. The second is Game Change: The Phenomenon was a four-minute look at the book that was the source for this movie.

The Blu-ray technical specs are good, but not great. The film looks good in high definition, but this is a TV movie and not a theatrical release, so it doesn't have the visual flair. There's nothing wrong with the picture and there are no compression issues, but it is best described as solid. Likewise, the audio is clear, but uncomplicated. It's mostly front and center with mostly the score coming from the rear speakers.

The Blu-ray costs $18 compared to $13 for the DVD, which is a little high, but not a dealbreaker.

The Verdict

Game Change is a great movie and a good home market release. Even if you are not a political addict, it is still worth checking out. The DVD or the Blu-ray Combo Pack is worth buying, but had they had a full set of extras, it could have been Pick of the Week material.

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Filed under: Video Review, Game Change, Woody Harrelson, Ed Harris, Peter MacNicol, Julianne Moore, Sarah Paulson, Austin Pendleton, Jamey Sheridan, Danny Strong, Barack Obama