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Choosing sides on Sarah Palin

'Game Change' on HBO portrays her as woefully misinformed and emotional. Her supporters blast the film, but some former John McCain aides say it's accurate.

February 18, 2012|By James Rainey, Los Angeles Times

Although the 427-page book "Game Change" is mostly devoted to inside accounts of other aspects of the 2008 race, the film focuses exclusively on the McCain-Palin campaign. It's already attracting attention in part because of the reputation of its three stars, Moore, Harrelson and Ed Harris, who plays McCain; all are past Academy Award nominees. Tom Hanks is among its executive producers.

The movie attempts to ratchet up the realism quotient by intercutting its acted scenes with news footage. Palin's fateful interview with then-CBS anchor Katie Couric, for example, alternates scenes of Moore's answers with video of Couric's actual questions. Then-Sens. Barack Obama, Joe Biden and others also appear in news footage.

Director Roach has called it a "dramatization," though in compressing events "it can't always be perfectly detail-accurate." Heilemann and Halperin served as consultants on the "Game Change" script and have cameos as journalists.

One jarring revelation in which the movie reaches beyond the book comes when Schmidt makes a query to assess nominee Palin's awareness of foreign affairs, asking McCain's VP pick how she would respond in the White House to news of waning British support for the war in Iraq.

The Palin character, sitting opposite Schmidt in a campaign bus, says McCain would "continue to have an open dialogue" with the queen of England on the subject. Flabbergasted, the Schmidt character informs her the queen is not the head of government. Palin asks who is. He informs her that the country has a prime minister.

Strong said he uncovered that additional episode during the 25 interviews he conducted with principals from Team McCain. Schmidt confirmed the account.

Though those new details will doubtless pop out at political observers, general audiences will likely be more attuned to the film's Pygmalion theme and considerable sweep — following Palin from her Alaska roots to her whirlwind vetting as a vice presidential candidate to her blockbuster GOP convention speech and then, downward, through her disastrously inarticulate interview with Couric, to a point where she openly feuds with staffers assigned to her team.

More than a few scenes depict her sympathetically. They show a deeply religious family matriarch who also feels intense loyalty to McCain. Another emotional wallop comes in the movie's re-creation of Palin's warm communion with families of special-needs children. The families flocked to Palin because of her devotion to her youngest son, who has Down syndrome.

In her own book "Going Rogue," Palin described the McCain campaign as defeatist, determined to script every moment and poorly organized. She wrote how she wanted to hit Democratic nominee Obama harder and to hone the party's focus on the economic crisis. Palin said she was not allowed to do the kind of free-wheeling, people-to-people campaigning that made her hugely popular with many voters.

"I was never in a funk," Palin told Fox's Chris Wallace when he asked her about the movie last weekend. "Thank God I have the right perspective on what really matters in life, Chris. And there's no need to ever be in a funk when you know what [the] right priorities are and what really matters."

One of the film's final notes will doubtless also stir the political waters. The McCain character is about to leave to deliver his concession speech when he calls the Palin character back and tells her: "You are one of the leaders of the party now, Sarah. Don't get co-opted by Limbaugh and the other extremists. They'll destroy the party if you let them."

McCain has told those close to him he is tired of rehashing the '08 loss. He said to an interviewer recently: "It will be a cold day in Gila Bend, Arizona, before I watch that movie."

james.rainey@latimes.com

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