Rogue or Republican Star- Portraying Palin

Rogue or Republican Star- Portraying Palin

Is a new TV film a hatchet job on the former vice presidential candidate?

Game Change the book is an authoritative 448-page retelling of all 500 or more days of the 2008 presidential campaign. The HBO film is a reconstruction of the two months when Sarah Palin was running for vice president on John McCain’s ticket.

The difference between the two has sparked conspiracy theories among conservative allies of Palin,who comes across in both the book and the film as woefully unprepared for the campaign and for the vice presidency. The film,they assert,was conceived by Hollywood liberals to undermine a future run for president by Palin.

“There were a number of films in the book,” said Len Amato,the president of HBO Films. “Our job was to zero in on the best one.”

HBO at first tried to translate the hard-fought campaign between Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton into movie form,but the script was unwieldy. The selection of Palin,then governor of Alaska,as a vice presidential candidate was compact enough for a two-hour movie. “From a storyteller’s standpoint,this was doable,” said John Heilemann,who,with Mark Halperin,wrote the book and were extensively consulted on the film. HBO’s Game Change sits right at the intersection of politics and storytelling,so it faces an unusual amount of scrutiny.


Julianne Moore plays Palin and Woody Harrelson plays the campaign manager Steve Schmidt in the film written by Danny Strong and directed by Jay Roach. In some scenes Palin is depicted as an inspirational leader who impressed campaign staffers with her Republican National Convention speech; in many other scenes she is portrayed as unable to answer basic political questions.

Before her first TV interview,Schmidt asks her,“Governor,do you know what the Fed is?” and she stares blankly at him; when he asks,“Governor,do you know why we’re in Iraq?” she says,incorrectly,“Because Saddam Hussein attacked us on 9/11.” Then Schmidt says to a senior adviser to Palin,Nicolle Wallace,“Well,she’s a great actress,right?” Wallace answers,“The best,” and he says,“Why don’t we just give her some lines?”

Richard Plepler,a co-president of HBO,said: “Danny,Jay and Julianne did a brilliant job in conveying what made her compelling,empathetic and interesting to a certain part of the citizenry. I think they also made it clear how far over her head she really was.”

Plepler and Amato denied that the film had a political agenda or that its release during the 2012 Republican primaries had any strategic purpose. In a Fox News interview on Saturday,Palin cast the film as a product of a “pro-leftist,pro-Barack Obama machine,” and added,“Hollywood lies are Hollywood lies.”

Strong’s rebuttal is simple: “The film’s true.” He said he supplemented the book with 25 of his own interviews. “Some people who weren’t comfortable talking right after the election were now ready to talk about it. And,boy,did they talk.”

Palin’s own memoir,Going Rogue,was also a source for the screenplay. “The whole movie was informed by having her point of view read out loud to us in her voice,” Roach said.

Roach was interested in the campaign,and in Palin in particular,because she was a surprise pick for vice president and was seen as a fix for a flailing Republican Party. Halperin Heilemann had already pitched their book to HBO executives. In the spring of 2010 Roach talked with executives about pivoting toward the McCain-Palin chapters of the book.

Then he called his friend Strong. When he first read Game Change,months before Roach’s call,he doubted that repetitive Democratic and Republican primaries would work well on screen. “You’re having the same sequence over and over again,and that’s the death of a screenplay,” he said.

Furthermore,he thought,the tension between Obama and Clinton was just as evident in public as it was in private,spoiling some of the thrill for viewers. But in the Palin chapters,he said,“What was happening behind the scenes was 10 times more amazing than what was happening in the public eye.”

To Roach,at least,it makes perfect sense. “No one,” he said,“changed the game more than Sarah Palin.”