Arts and Culture

'Game Change'

Palin, McCain, and the presidential race of a lifetime. Political campaigns, the genre that keeps on giving.

By Steve Burgess 9 Mar 2012 |

Steve Burgess writes about film and culture every other Friday on The Tyee. Find his previous articles here.

Saturday HBO rolls out Game Change, a demented yet true fairy tale in which an Alaskan Cinderella becomes a political princess until the lame-stream media pumpkins her ass. Julianne Moore faces the daunting task of convincing people she can really transform herself into Tina Fey -- advance reviews of her performance have been glowing.

The made-for-cable film is based on the book by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, which in Europe bore the title Race of a Lifetime. And that it was. Fans of that gossipy, riveting behind-the-scenes account of the 2008 U.S. presidential race might be disappointed in the limited scope of the HBO film. But it's a smart move, cinematically. Trying to shoehorn the whole marathon into a two-hour film would have been a mistake. We can still hope for prequels, though -- there are several movies left in that book.

Screenwriter Danny Strong and director Jay Roach previously made HBO's Recount, similarly based on a decisive chapter in a long presidential campaign. But when it comes to presidential campaign chronicles, film has not been the medium of choice. Ever since Theodore White released The Making of the President about the 1960 Kennedy/Nixon race, the campaign account has been a publishing evergreen. Books like Marathon and Whose Broad Stripes and Bright Stars have diagrammed the backstage maneuvers behind all those spontaneous expressions of political support. Until this year, Newsweek's post-campaign accounts were an anticipated, quadrennial magazine-publishing event -- there was real grief in political circles at the news that the tradition will be discontinued this time out.

Campaign classics

No other campaign chronicle resembles Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, a serendipitous mix of fact and fantasy made possible when the gonzo journalist made the improbable decision to follow long-shot peace candidate George McGovern for Rolling Stone magazine. McGovern then set the political world on its ear with a true grassroots candidacy that smashed the old-boy network of the Democratic Party, before McGovern was himself crushed by the Nixon landslide. Along the way Thompson mixed real behind-the-scenes reporting with his trademark bits of mischief, notably the claim that Democratic Senator Ed Muskie was hooked on a Brazilian drug called ibogaine (an assertion Thompson backed with several well-chosen photographs). Drug-addled tomfoolery aside, Thompson succeeded in capturing the bubble world of a candidate's entourage and the parasitic press mob that constantly vacillates between the sycophantic and the predatory.

It's hard to do that on film. The 1993 documentary The War Room from D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus may be the best effort -- it made stars out of Clinton strategists George Stephanopoulos and James Carville, the latter becoming surely one of the few political operatives to be regularly caricatured on Saturday Night Live. 1998's Primary Colors made a fair stab at it before descending into some unnecessary nonsense involving Kathy Bates and a gun. Last year's The Ides of March from George Clooney had a modest appeal. But conveying both the epic sweep and the soul-crushing tedium of a modern presidential campaign would require something more along the lines of a Band of Brothers-type miniseries. The 2008 campaign, with its titanic Obama-Clinton showdown, Senator John Edwards' love child sideshow, and fall and rise and fall of Senator John McCain would have been perfect.

And 2012? It's been quite a carnival ride so far. Unfortunately for would-be screenwriters, all the fun has been in the sideshow tents. The central narrative of a plucky humanoid desperately trying to speak American phonetically is unlikely to become compelling theatre. Let us hope that when late summer comes and the Romney campaign realizes how badly they need a shot of charisma, their desperation will lead them to seek fresh Herman Cains or undiscovered Pat Robertsons. Or perhaps just the existing Rick Perry. After all, we are not just talking about the future of America here. We're talking about show biz.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Film

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