Anyone who thought Sarah Palin was simply going to disappear from public consciousness has been convinced otherwise by two cable films during recent days.
The first, "Game Change," debuted this past weekend on HBO and it must have been tempting to those responsible for creating the film's trailers to borrow from the marketing maneuvers of Jack Nicholson's 1980 "The Shining." Yes, Sarah is back.
Perverse pleasures admitted, this viewer has missed Palin and it may very well be due to the obvious contrasts she offers to the rag tag collection of politicians who for far too long have flailed away at nailing down the Republican Party's presidential nomination. Mitt Romney, challenged by Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Ron Paul, simply can't make the sale to a party base moved to the right somewhere in the general vicinity of Attila the Hun. All this, of course, has come after semi-final rounds during which we were introduced to the strange campaigns of Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Michelle Bachmann, and poor Jon Huntsman, he of the nice-guy-what-am-I-doing- here? persona. Never in the past 100 years of the election process has the American public been confronted by such a collection of boring possibilities. Never has the other party been given such a leg up while 20 debates put audiences to sleep.
Palin's remarkable selection as John McCain's running mate is the focal point of "Game Change." The film is based upon the best-seller by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. Palin, as played by Julianne Moore, initially is drawn as a sympathetic character decidedly over-matched as McCain's advisers determine she is a logical choice as the Arizona Senator's running mate. Moore's portrayal of Palin invites comparisons to the wickedly funny Tina Fey impressions on "Saturday Night Live." As good as Fey's you-betcha takes were of Palin, Moore's provide much greater insight as we experience her strengths (connecting with crowds) to her weaknesses (foreign affairs about which she knows next to nothing). It is through Moore 's nuanced performance that we see the many Palins: fragile, sullen, magnetic, and vain. The pit bull mom may not have much upstairs but she appears to have a vast collection of hockey jerseys.
Woody Harrelson, as campaign strategist Steve Schmidt, gives another outstanding performance as he moves from enthusiasm for Palin to a realization that five days were simply not enough time to vet the Alaska governor. Ed Harris is splendid while offering a compassionate portrayal of McCain. Harris and Harrelson, both compiling impressive bodies of work, have become two of our very best film actors.
What is particularly intriguing about "Game Change" are the sympathetic roles played by the advisers who, much like race horse bettors given a sure thing in a four-horse race, are aghast as their filly stumbles out of the gate and at all the turns. Often with media backgrounds, advisers in a political story are people in the shadows, rarely gaining audience rapport or even interest. Senior adviser Nicolle Wallace, played by Sarah Pauley, bears the brunt of Palin mistakes and malice; Schmidt's "explanation to Palin about the why of not allowing her to give a concession speech is a classic.
Something quite different in Palinology may be observed in "The Undefeated," like "Game Change," inspired by a book. Going Rogue, "written" by the then jobless governor having fled Juneau, was Palin's explanation of how things happened. The bad show business people, led by Bill Maher and Matt Damon, are introduced. The best line is that of ex-New York mayor Ed Koch who, in describing Palin as "plucky, perky," then adds, "and she scares the hell out of me."
First viewed last July, the documentary comes off as an infomercial rather inexpertly cut on somebody's dinner table. The guilty are director/writer Stephen K. Bannon and the late Andrew Breitbart whose producer credits are augmented by appearance snippets enabling the audience to better understand Palin's brilliance. He is joined by conservative talk show host Mark Levin and others as the banal product unwinds providing explanation of the box office failure following theatrical release. It is currently playing on the ReelzChannel as what can only be regarded as a curiosity piece.
One of the reasons for it being a curiosity is its frantic pace and helter-skelter use of very low grade digital video of a lesser quality than YouTube. Be assured that when the bad guys are offered up as depraved contrasts to the self-appointed mama grizzly, you can count on either stock footage of good old boys in a smoke-filled room or an incessantly brooding film score. The feel of much of the material is that it is a collection of out takes clipped from promotional film shot for "Sarah Palin's Alaska" whose run on The Learning Channel mercifully has been completed. There are always re-runs for the Palin-addicted.
Another of the oddities of Bannon's love letter to Palin is the paltry amount of time spent on the presidential election although her considerable triumph, an acceptance speech at the 2008 Republican National Convention, gets a lot and it's Sarah at her best, by golly. John McCain is barely recognized. Hardly a master of subtlety, Bannon tells us that government is wasteful, then gives us three shots of money swirling down a toilet.
We never see Palin inThe Rogue: Searching for Sarah Palin, Joe McGinniss's wickedly amusing and sometimes frightening six months spent living next door to the remarkable woman who threatened to become a heartbeat from the Presidency. McGinniss is not new to Alaska having researched the critically acclaimed Going to Extremes there in 1977. McGinniss does make it clear that, in his opinion, the Palinized Wasilla and much of Alaska is full of people thoroughly fed up with Palin.
In an unusual bit of good fortune, McGinniss, having determined that Alaska's most famous resident was worth a book, was offered a rental next door to Palin. The mere beating of such odds strongly suggests Palin has a lot of enemies in Alaska in general and Wasilla in particular. In investigative journalist fashion much more Confidential than New Yorker, McGinniss gives us Sarah: having a fling with an NBA basketball player; doing drugs back when with First Dude Todd; coming up with easily doubted stories about the birth of son Trig suggesting she is not his mother; and as being committed to religious control of government in spite of not being sufficiently devout. Oh, yes, the Palin family in all its dysfunctional glory is on board and, as described by McGinniss, not pretty.
She may be guilty of all his charges but McGinniss weakens his case with a disconcerting bitchy quality to his reportage and there are far too many stories told by "a friend," "one resident," and "a former resident."
On the other hand, if only one-quarter of McGinniss's stories can weather a scrutiny closer than the author's he said, she said conclusions, then Sarah Palin is, indeed, one of our major oddities worthy of the Koch quote about scaring the hell out of us.
McGinniss strikes just the right note with his last two paragraphs: What should never have been more than a freaky sideshow performed on a carnival midway was transformed by John McCain's desperation into what many still seem to see as the greatest show on earth.
Actually, it's long past time to strike the tent.
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