‘Game Change’ and Recent History According to HBO

By  · Published on March 13th, 2012

There are those on the right who have said that Game Change is a partisan smear. At the same time, some on the left may have gone into the program expecting a SNL-style “look-how-dumb-Palin-is” work of predictable affirmation. But while hit jobs and hagiographies might make for effective 30-second political ads, they can’t sustain a two-hour block of television. Game Change, by contrast, is a gripping (though by no means perfect) two-hour block of television.

But the term “block of television” does not necessarily carry the same connotations as “TV movie.” The distinction here is important. Game Change’s central thesis is not a political point about either John McCain or Sarah Palin as candidates (what could a TV movie possibly say that’s new or urgent in this respect?), but is instead a lamentation about how our political landscape is determined (on all sides of the ideological spectrum) by the media cycles of Celebrity 2.0.

HBO has been preoccupied for quite some time by the major chapters in American history, rolling out expensive and impressive miniseries detailing the canonical moments that Americans learned about during their primary education: whether it be The Revolutionary War and the stories of the Founding Fathers (John Adams (2008)), WWII (Band of Brothers (2001) and The Pacific (2010)), or man’s journey to the moon (From the Earth to the Moon). However, HBO’s original programming has also taken microscopic examinations of recent, not-so-canonized history with smaller-scale projects like Recount (2008), Too Big to Fail (2011), and, of course, Game Change.

The Medium with a Message

Whenever I watch a TV movie that is effective and compelling, I often wonder why, through its process of becoming, the project ended up as a TV movie and not a theatrical release. Many TV films on premium cable, after all, are picked up at film festivals and could ostensibly go into a variety of exhibition markets. However, in the case of HBO’s original programming, television is the given story’s preconceived home. So, it’s a legitimate question: what do such films accomplish on television that they could not to the same effect in other media formats?

With HBO’s lavish miniseries, the answer is clear: the time constraints of mainstream narrative filmmaking does not make a five-plus hour rumination on American history a profitable option. Television has the great advantage of unraveling narratives in greater detail over long periods of time and (often, but not always) with a great deal more complexity, especially on HBO where there are no commercial breaks, shows do not live or die based solely on viewership, and there is no censorship (one needs to look no further than the exhaustively detailed The Wire for the perfect case of what premium television can do better than anything else).

But HBO’s smaller-scale annals of recent political history don’t carry the same marker of medium specificity: their running times are within the parameters of a conventional feature-length film, and these films are often helmed by directors who have had successful careers in film (Curtis Hanson’s Too Big to Fail, Jay Roach’s Recount and Game Change).

A few months after HBO premiered Recount and only a few weeks before the most recent presidential election, Oliver Stone’s W. was released wide. Of all the expected barnburning and trepidation accompanying its buzz, much of the discourse surrounded the fact that, in order to get a film released about a definitive presidency before that presidency was over, the film had to be rushed through production. So many news reports – political and entertainment-driven – focused on the film’s lightning-fast shooting schedule, whether this was to demonize the film as lazy or opportunistic or simply to sit in bewilderment as to why such a film was necessary.

The focus on W.’s abbreviated production schedule is a medium-specific one. Rarely do similar news outlets express similar skepticism towards the shooting of a TV movie as film production has a very different set of expectations attached to it. This is why television is able to comment on specific socio-political moments with an instantaneousness that film can’t often replicate, as evidenced by W.’s bizarre non-statement about a presidential legacy that had not yet developed its own finalized narrative to respond to.

It’s Not Television

Game Change succeeds where a theatrical release like W. floundered because it does not carry the burden of being a film. Films are presented as autonomous objects that can (perhaps unfairly) be lifted from their contexts of original release, to ostensibly be enjoyed across time and space (this is why biopics carry the undue expectation of being definitive). We seek theatrical show times for films or choose to watch them at home at our convenience rather than have them broadcast to us simultaneously with the rest of the country. Television programming, despite the efforts of DVR, is ephemeral. It presents audio-visual information that is instantaneously presented and never preserved in any autonomous form. Television is a medium of continuous conversation and flow, not a finalized text.

Telling a scripted story of the Florida recount or the 2008 Republican Presidential race makes sense on television because this is component of a larger narrative that has taken place (and, in many respects, continues) centrally through the medium of television. Because of television, it makes sense that the creative team behind Recount could reunite four years later to tell a story that had not yet happened when Recount originally aired.

But Recount and Game Change are two very different works. Recount is about what happens behind the scenes, and focuses on the players instructive in the 2000 election that, for the most part, did not have a role in the national spotlight. Ron Klain and Michael Whouley are not the types of public figures that would inspire magazine articles comparing their likenesses to the actors who portrayed them. The same can’t be said for John McCain and Sarah Palin. Recount was an intricate examination of what happened behind the scenes. Game Change is about how “the scenes” were constructed. Game Change thus has a problem that Recount didn’t: how do we expect two well-known actors – Ed Harris and Julianne Moore – to effectively portray public figures as iconic and (in the case of the latter) already-imitable as McCain and Palin?

Like Recount, Game Change decidedly avoids casting actors to play some of its major characters – as there were no Bush and Gore characters in the former, the latter keeps Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Katie Couric, and Mike Wallace strictly within the televisually-mediated representations that we’re already familiar with. Game Change’s central thesis – that the appeal of both Obama and Palin was made possible through the same celebrity culture – may be a bit simplistic and too conveniently “fair and balanced,” its insight into the decisive role of charisma in 21st century politics is potent. Why else would the political advisor who knows foreign policy not be the vice-presidential nominee instead of the candidate s/he is educating unless the issue of real importance is ultimately the manufactured magnetism that somebody evokes through the cathode ray tube?

Hollywood For Ugly People

And this is why it’s important that well-known actors (if not necessarily “celebrities”) played McCain and Palin in this case. In seeing both “behind the scenes” and reconstructions of the “scenes” themselves, we are given insight into how the political celebrity persona is formed. We get to hear “McCain” diss Rush Limbaugh and say “fuck,” and we get to see “Palin” passive aggressively text and make a genuinely emotional phone call to her son serving abroad. Yes, Game Change is, in terms of its genre, a “fiction” program, but in some ways seeing Ed Harris curse lines lifted from a monograph written by political journalists while dressed like John McCain is the closest we’ll get to the unscripted John McCain. Otherwise, all we know of these characters are similar to the reverse-shots used for Biden and Couric. More than anything, Game Change is about how television is made.

We are rarely surprised to hear about movie stars whose screen personae do not fit their real lives – that, for instance, the star of What Women Want is a misogynist or that the star of Cyrano de Bergerac publicly urinates on airplanes. With political celebrities, a similar process of careful selection exists between the media representation and the “real” self. But, despite all evidence otherwise, we would prefer not to think of these processes as similar, for we invest in our politicians with our lives and values and ideologies, not just our desire to be entertained. John McCain and Sarah Palin are celebrities. They are far more famous than Ed Harris or Julianne Moore. And in deliberately staging recent political history, Game Change simply chronicles the process of making political theater.

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