Were the media right about Sarah Palin?

Was she the monstrous hockey mom they portrayed her as - or simply the victim of her desperate party, asks Justin Webb

The Ancient Greeks invented tragedy; by which they meant a drama based on human suffering, so compelling and enthralling that it is actually entertaining and enlightening to watch. Modern Americans call it a train wreck.

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Either way, Game Change is the real deal – hubris and nemesis brought to you by Julianne Moore and powered by diet coke. What’s not to like?

As with the Greek tragedies, advance knowledge of the story is no bar to your enjoyment of Game Change. We all know that Sarah Palin was a little known Governor of Alaska, whisked on to the international stage by Republican presidential nominee John McCain in a desperate effort to win the 2008 election. We all know that it did not go well.

Political disaster

But what Game Change brings home to us is the full extent of the horror behind the scenes, as the train began to wobble, and then topple, and finally come to rest slewed across the tracks.

It is the story of a political disaster, but it’s also much more than that. It’s a tale of ambition and power and the cruelty of the spotlight of fame in the modern age.

Game Change appeals to more than US political wonks. It is a work of art with a bigger message and it deserves a wider audience.

All of us who covered the 2008 campaign can remember where we were when we heard that John McCain had chosen Palin. I had just flown back to Washington after the Democratic convention.

There were about a hundred reporters on the plane – all turned on their phones as we reached the gate and all uttered the same guttural “Huhhggh?” sound at the same time. It would have been a stroke of genius, had she been the remotest bit qualified for the job.

Appeal

The film suggests that the McCain team found her on Google. They were in a hole, running against Barack Obama, a candidate who was young and vigorous and pulling ahead. They needed their vice-presidential choice to change the game, so they had a staffer trawl the net for women, as it were.

And Bingo! There she was. Somewhere up near Russia. Someone somewhere suggested she had won office by standing up to the party bullies and the McCain team was instantly won over; she was a maverick like their man. She would have the same appeal.

And to begin with, she did. The film depicts the McCain advisors nervously watching their under-prepped charge being introduced to the world and making her barn-storming Convention speech (“What’s the difference between a pit-bull and a hockey mom – lipstick!”).

Convincing portrayal

Moore plays Palin at this stage completely straight; she is an accomplished speaker, sweetly nervous but steely as well. But as the film develops, the mood darkens and the character of Sarah Palin inexorably changes. She turns from gutsy to batty – brilliantly acted by Moore; utterly, toe-curlingly convincing.

As she descends into nightmare territory (aides horrified by the realisation that she does not know why Korea is divided, or that the Queen is not Britain’s head of government), she also displays an almost endearing vulnerability.

Earnestly and diligently, she tries to learn every fact in the world that she does not know – and that is almost all of them – and write it longhand on to a cue-card.

The writer

It’s painful to watch. On the phone to New York, I asked Game Change’s writer Danny Strong whether he had changed his personal view of Sarah Palin during his research. He is cautious. “I didn’t change my mind,” he says, “but I did deepen my understanding of her. I got to walk in her shoes.”

Danny points out that she could have said no. She could have known her limitations. She could have understood herself that this was, as he puts it, “extremely irresponsible”. But she ploughed on, and eventually “went rogue” in the wonderful phrase used by the McCain staff.

McCain himself (played brilliantly by Ed Harris) won’t engage with the monster he has created. He loves it when she is on good form. The rest of the time he hides from her and the consequences of her.

Truth or dramatic licence?

How much of this actually happened? The film uses real footage and some of the events are public so there is a record to check. But how much dramatic licence has been used to garnish the dish and if it has been used, is that really fair? The answer according to the Palin and McCain camps is, of course, “they made it up”.

But Danny Strong was adamant when I talked to him. “The film is not a word-for-word re-creation,” he says, “but it is as accurate and truthful as a film re-telling can be.” Crucially, he claims that all the conversations really happened.

I am tempted to believe him, for the simple reason that all the conversations bar one – Palin and her husband talking in their bedroom – take place with witnesses present. And the key witnesses – the McCain staff – are portrayed with a degree of generosity that suggests more than a little co-operation with the whole exercise.

We will never know the truth. But we have, in Game Change, a lasting testament to the dangers of celebrity politics. Many Republicans will have watched the film and will be hoping now that Mitt Romney – the likely nominee this year – will try playing the game rather than changing it. As Mrs Palin would say: “Youbetcha.”

This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 10 April 2012.

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Game Change airs tonight at 9pm on Sky Atlantic