Movie chronicles political ‘Game Change’

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In the opening of the HBO movie “Game Change,” it’s 2007 and political consultant Steve Schmidt is talking to Republican candidate for president John McCain.

“There’s an upside to being in last place,” Schmidt says. “You can say what you truly feel.”

We know the history. McCain becomes the straight-talk express and cruises to the nomination. The movie then focuses on what happens next: the disastrous choice of Sarah Palin to be the GOP vice presidential candidate. It suggests that she may have cost the Republicans the election.

The reality is that nobody was going to beat Barack Obama in 2008. But the movie, based on the book by Mark Halperin and John Heileman, is one of the best political drama in years, at least since my all-time favorite, “The Candidate.”

That 1972 classic opens with a potential senate candidate, Bill MacKay, played by Robert Redford, who is even farther out than last place. His handlers promise him one thing: “You lose.” And then they add the words that McCain heard for real: “But you can say whatever you want.”

Imagine how exciting: a candidate free to speak. We have at least one today: Ron Paul. He cannot win.

Perhaps the last person to speak his mind and actually win — Ronald Reagan. And in 1980, his critics insisted he would start World War III. Actually, he brought the Soviets to the negotiating table.

Now we have a party that worships at the altar of Reagan, but it’s doubtful that the nation’s 40th president would get the GOP nomination in 2012. He’s much too liberal for this crowd!

In “Game Change,” Sarah Palin describes Reagan as her hero. The character, played brilliantly by Jullianne Moore, is more nuanced than the Tina Fey cliche. Her incredible campaign-trail charisma bursts forth, along with her nerves of steel and sometimes strong-headedness that had her clashing with the campaign. She makes a series of embarrassing gaffes, and according to the film did not know what the Federal Reserve was, nor why North and South Korea were separated.

Palin then proceeds to melt down and simply ignore her handlers and regularly “goes rogue.”

In one of the film’s closing scenes, Schmidt begs McCain to intercede, but the senator, also played magnificently by Ed Harris declines, saying, “She just might start turning on me.”

Palin, it should be noted, says the movie is “fiction.”

But the film is also sympathetic toward Palin and the role she was thrust into.

Schmidt, played by Woody Harrelson, is left at the end of the film to reflect on what might have been. On “60 Minutes” he is asked, “If you had it to do over again, would you have her on the ticket?” Schmidt’s answer: “You don’t get to go back in time and have do-overs in life.”