Over the weekend I saw this film about the ill-fated McCain-Palin campaign of 2008. The film is based on a book of the same name by two journalists who relied heavily on anonymous sources on ‘deep background’, which means that one has to be wary of the material that took place out of the public eye or was not reported previously, and treat it with some skepticism. As a film I found it entertaining and engrossing even though I was very familiar with the entire narrative. I was not particularly surprised by any of the information in it but then I am a bit of a political junkie and followed that election pretty closely. With that knowledge I can say that events portrayed in the film were largely consistent with my understanding of the people and events.
The story begins with John McCain trailing in the primaries and calling political operative Steve Schmidt to join his campaign and turn things around. It then fast forwards to a week or so before the Democratic convention with the now-nominee McCain behind in the polls to Barack Obama and alarmed by the huge and enthusiastic crowds that Obama was drawing and the large gender gap in support between them. The campaign strategizes about how to take the wind out of the Obama campaign’s sails and decides that a daring female vice-presidential pick might do it.
The stars of the film are Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin and Woody Harrelson as campaign manager Schmidt and the rising tension between them as it dawns on Schmidt, the one who pushed for her selection as something that could swing the election their way, that she is hopelessly unsuited for the role of vice-president both in terms of her knowledge of the issues and her temperament. As he shifts from enthusiastic backer to damage controller after her early disastrous interviews with mainstream news anchors, Palin goes from being an eager student wanting to learn about national and international affairs to increasingly resentful and defiant at being seen as ignorant, sometimes seeming to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Here is a short clip that illustrates the first stage, though once again one must be cautious in treating as fact those scenes that took place in private since they cannot be independently corroborated.
Actress Sarah Paulson is worth watching as Nicole Wallace, the hapless person assigned the task of being Palin’s press secretary and prepare her for interviews, who soon realizes that she is dealing with a parochial-minded and petulant prima donna who obsesses over petty things, is quick to find fault with everyone else when things go wrong, and uses passive-aggressive methods such as withdrawing into silence and ignoring her presence when annoyed or asked to do something she dislikes or resents,
While Tina Fey’s portrayal of Sarah Palin in the Saturday Night Live sketches was rightly praised for their rich comedy and her physical resemblance to Palin, I think Moore does even better. She captures Palin’s clenched-jaw, steely-eyed, ambitious determination that also has hints of fear and insecurity as she realizes that she is way out of her depth on the national stage and needs to bluster her way through, followed by her increasing arrogance as she realizes that there are many party faithful who simply adore her and don’t give a damn if she has no idea that the Queen of England does not run that country’s government or what the Federal Reserve is or does.
After Palin’s surprisingly good showing in the vice presidential debate with Joe Biden (it is revealed that that was achieved by giving up trying to prepare her on the issues and simply having her memorize a set of answers) Palin seems to think that she is not being well served by the campaign staff and that she should go her own way and do her own thing, giving rise to the famous ‘going rogue’. She knows that she rouses much greater enthusiasm and money than McCain and that she can use that support to defy her critics within and outside the campaign and so she decides to say and do what she wants.
But Moore’s portrayal is not entirely unsympathetic. Palin and her family are portrayed as loving and close and mutually supportive. The film also absolves Palin of the charge that she and her family used campaign funds to indulge in wildly extravagant purchases of clothes and the like. The film captures the brutal microscope under which candidates for national office are put under and makes one feel sorry for Palin’s family as they struggle to cope with all the wild rumors that suddenly turn their private lives into a public reality show.
The film also address one enduring mystery and that is how it could be, even if the time available for vetting her was just a few days, that no one within the McCain campaign realized that Palin had no clue about the basic facts of national and international policy. It suggests that the legal team vetting her background and the campaign’s chief strategists each thought the other would ask her policy and general knowledge questions but other than those on abortion, stem-cell research, and creationism, nothing got asked. The film also suggests that lurking beneath was the strong desire to see her as a winning pick for the campaign, leading to the all-too-human failing of shutting one’s eyes to any warning signs that go against one’s hopes and wishes.
Someone once said that the most common last words expressed by reckless men before they do something stupid is: “Hey guys, watch this!” The McCain decision strikes me as exactly one of those ideas, something that looks bold and daring and exciting in the heat of a brainstorming session where a few people are trying to “think outside box” and make a stunning impression, but where all the negatives only show up in the cold light of day. It is then that you realize that there is a very thin line separating ‘thinking outside the box’ from ‘being out of your mind’.
I think that this decision is going to haunt McCain. His and her ardent supporters are trying to put on a good face and saying that this move is a ‘game changer’. I think they are right but not in a good way for him. It risks changing a narrow race into a blowout victory for Obama.
The film seems to support that view.
McCain (played by Ed Harris) comes out well in this film, which suggests that the sources for it were largely from his camp. He is portrayed as an avuncular figure who, after being stung by the dirty campaign of innuendo George W. Bush ran against him in the 2000 Republican primaries, wanted to run an honorable campaign that did not descend into character smearing and is visibly dismayed when it gets out of control and the people at his rallies start yelling that Obama is a Kenyan Muslim socialist who ‘pals around with terrorists’ and is otherwise anti-American. When his supposedly game-changing pick of Sarah Palin as his running mate goes badly awry, he is shown as helpless to do anything about it. He realizes that she is ruining his chances of winning the presidency but yet takes a protective attitude towards her, like an indulgent father unsure how to deal with a headstrong and wayward child who is running through the family fortunes. Nowhere we do we see the other side of McCain that has been widely reported and is often publicly visible, that of a hot-tempered, prickly, mean, and cranky person who lashes out at those who cross him.
I can recommend this film. I think Moore, Harrelson, and Paulson put in excellent performances.
Here’s the trailer.