By Folabi Ogunleye | March 17, 2012.
ONE word best describes the movie I saw last night: powerful.
A political movie about the 2008 presidential contest between Republican Senator John McCain and then-Senator Barack Obama, it was one of the most riveting political movies of the last few years.
I had settled on watching Game Change for sheer “kicks and giggles,” as I said to an acquaintance, prior to watching the movie. My anticipation of a humorous session watching it turned out otherwise by the time the movie ended, moving me to put my thoughts into writing here.
As someone who obsessed heavily over the presidential elections of 2008, right from the very moment when Mr. Obama declared his intention to form an “exploratory committee” on the possibility of a presidential run, Game Change was a must-watch for me - both to relive what I call the euphoria of that watershed period in the annals of American presidential elections, and to contrast the 2008 election with what is presently shaping up in 2012 to be a Republican contest just as ludicrous as the last one.
Right from the first moments into the movie came the suspicion that this would be more serious than I had anticipated. Fine, John McCain was just as I imagined him: an older man with just a tinge of a frat boy attitude - what with his resort to f-words like he was a conservative version of comedian Bill Maher. [And I am by no means saying that Maher has any frat boy attitude about him - no.]
Senator McCain pretty much remained Senator McCain in the movie as far as I am concerned. The same man with a rebel-like personality who sang Bomb, Bomb, Bomb Iran! at a town-hall meeting was the same guy in Game Change. He was the same McCain who also showed sparks of honor while many people around him, including his running-mate, bayed for blood - that is, the same man who found the courage to disagree and grab the microphone from a misinformed old lady at his rally whose biggest concern was that Barack Obama, “an Arab,” could be the next president of the United States. "No, ma'am. He's a good man," McCain said, shaking his head in disagreement with the lady, apparently concerned at that point about his campaign getting overrun by conservative extremists.
The Sarah Palin in Game Change was essentially the same as the Sarah Palin that America had come to know as well, except that aspects of her possible personality that were previously 'unknown' were given more attention. I actually felt a tinge of empathy for her: a frontier governor, unexposed to the hard glare of national politics, plucked from the comforts of her relative obscurity to do what she was simply incapable of doing - by persons who failed to do the necessary vetting to ascertain her suitability for the job at hand. [Although it is ironic how, earlier yesterday, Ms. Palin mentioned that President Obama didn’t get proper vetting by the press prelude to his emergence at president. It sort of makes me wonder if, prior to 2008, the word “vet” in Ms. Palin’s lexicon only referred to “veteran.”]
The former governor of Alaska was a natural at the part that was urgently required of her: to give life to a dying campaign. Unfortunately, the risk of a choice in Palin eventually devoured the overall objective of the McCain campaign. If Sarah Palin had possessed the remainder of what was required of her, she would have been a perfect choice for a running mate. Or maybe, as campaign aide Rick Davis said in the movie, "it was just the cold hands of fate" that cost them the election.
All of that is now history. Yet Game Change brings to fore again the electric moment of the 2008 election. The movie portrays Ms. Palin, contrary to a popular perception of her, as a loving, doting mother and wife, who derives as much joy and strength from her children and husband as they depend on her for same. It is noteworthy that she was at a public fair with her children, infant baby in hand, when the call that would change her life forever came from the McCain campaign - a Palin family moment that was part of a larger image of an ordinary American family life that many Americans found attractive in the Palins, along with Ms. Palin’s own folksy manner of engaging the public.
Hate or love John McCain, but his few moments of courage and loyalty in the movie [especially to Sarah Palin] does shine. It is instructive that when he was approached over Ms. Palin’s “minor melt-down,” he easily recommended that a time-out with her whole family at his place in Sedona, Arizona, would do her a whole lot of good. And it appeared so, as Palin came back to life after reuniting with her family in Arizona, where her husband encouraged her, rightly or wrongly, to do away with the barrage of campaign scripts handed her, to be herself all over again.
With Ms. Palin’s new life came greater liabilities, as campaign manager Steve Schmidt could no longer handle her - no thanks to the new-found praise coming her way after she began to hit the right notes with the public again. It was also remarkable that McCain revealed why he would not involve himself in trying to tame a now-belligerent Palin in spite of the scary, negative tone she was attracting to a campaign that up till then had maintained a fairly decent posture. Any attempt by him at moderating Palin, according to McCain, would have made him a target of Palin. And so the typhoon of Palin’s strident tone gathered storm as McCain and company cringed at the sight of it all.
Did I mention that, as portrayed in the movie, the Palins were not so much the opportunist Alaska bimbos that many people took them for? Case in point: the hullabaloo generated over the amount spent on sprucing them up at top-end departmental stores in New York and elsewhere. The former governor reacted angrily to being forced to dress and act in certain ways, saying she didn’t like the fancy clothes anyways and asked for the clothes to be removed from her wardrobe. But of course that was after it became public knowledge that they spent so much money on clothes and things at the expense of the Party.
There were the funny parts of the movie as well, which I had looked forward to seeing - like where a campaign aide who was chatting with another said former Vice President Dick Cheney referred to their choice in Sarah Palin as a “reckless choice.” The speaker later said of Cheney, “When you lose the moral high-ground to Dick Cheney, it’s time to rethink your entire life.”
However, my most favorite part of the movie, and the most poignant part even, comes at the tail end where Sarah Palin was confronted by McCain’s campaign manager Steve Schmidt over her plans to carry out the unthinkable act of delivering a concession speech on election night. Schmidt, who had about had his fill of Palin, let go of one of the best commentaries of the movie when he gave Palin a tough mini-lecture, telling her that the moment was not about her, but about the country.
Dripping with undisguised contempt, Mr. Schmidt hissed:
“Governor, this country has just elected the first African-American president in the history of its existence. And it is the concession speech that would legitimize his succession as commander-in-chief, and it is a serious and solemn occasion. And John McCain, and only John McCain, will be giving this solemn and sacred speech. This is how it is has been done in every election since the dawn of the Republic, and you, Sarah Palin, would not do anything to change the importance of this proud American tradition!”
As McCain later gave his concession speech, and the grumble of his audience grew into audible chants of “Sarah! Sarah!,” I could not help wondering what a McCain presidency would have been like. The mere thought of it alone leaves one with a weird sense of foreboding: the world's most powerful country, run by a 72-year old man with a back-up like Sarah Palin? [Here is where you cross your hearts in prayer].
Perhaps it was only fitting therefore that the movie closed with an acapella invoking God’s mercy on America - especially now when the ones who are knocking on the presidency's door from the Right are running campaigns that sound just about as negative and uninspiring and scary as Sarah Palin's.
March 17, 2012.