'Game Change': How accurate is the movie about Sarah Palin?

Words have been flying between supporters of Sarah Palin, who charge the ‘Game Change’ filmmakers with a smear job, and the producers, who insist they’re committed to accuracy.

Phil Caruso/HBO/AP
Ed Harris portrays Arizona Sen. John McCain and Julianne Moore portrays Sarah Palin in a scene from "Game Change," a film about the 2008 presidential race that premieres Saturday on HBO.

When HBO’s film “Game Change,” about the 2008 election and specifically about Sarah Palin, airs on Saturday, many will wonder: How accurate is all that crazy behind-the-scenes dialogue?

As seems to happen with virtually every political docudrama, questions about accuracy and political agenda have arisen around the project. Words have been flying back and forth between supporters of Ms. Palin, who charge the filmmakers with a smear job, and the producers, who insist they’re committed to historical accuracy.

At the same time, filmmakers say, the purpose of drama is to create a meaningful narrative, not a history lesson.

“We have to learn to see movies as representations that are made rather than simple reflections,” says Peter Lehman, director of the Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture at Arizona State University, in an e-mail. Their relationship to real people and events is always more complex than the words "accuracy" or "fair" suggest, he adds.

The “Game Change” filmmakers have indeed acknowledged the impossibility of compressing months of recent history into two hours without engaging in creative license. Still, they robustly defend the reliability of their research.

“I interviewed all of those people that were in those [back] rooms” where campaign decisions were made, “Gang Change” writer Danny Strong said at a Television Critics Association press conference in January. These interviews were in addition to what he calls a careful reliance on the book on which the film is based. The book’s authors also talked to dozens of participants in the actual events.

“So, a combination of the book and the interviews – I feel that it’s very accurate to what actually happened,” Mr. Strong said.

Actress Julianne Moore, who portrays Palin, also defends the authenticity of her process. “I did a tremendous amount of research,” she told reporters at the same conference. “I read her book. I read ‘Game Change.’ I read her assistant’s book. I read absolutely everything I could get my hands on,” she says, adding, “It’s a daunting task to play somebody who is not only a living figure, but a hugely well-known one.”

The most important thing, she said, “was accuracy.”

But what about those “private” exchanges in the movie, such as one between Palin (Moore) and Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson), as he coaches her on US foreign policy with Britain? He asks how she would handle the relationship, now that support for the war in Iraq is “at an all-time low in that country.” Palin responds, “The United States has always maintained a great relationship with the queen.” Mr. Schmidt responds that the queen is not the head of the government, but rather the head of state, to which Palin says, “Who is the head of government?”

The producers of the film maintain that the scene is historically accurate, but conservative filmmaker John Ziegler doubts this. While making the film “Media Malpractice: How Obama Got Elected and Palin Was Targeted,” he interviewed Palin and became what he calls an informal adviser for her subsequent media appearances.

Contrary to what he calls the liberal media’s orthodoxy about Palin, “she is not dumb; she is incredibly smart.”

However, he says, there are only a few inaccuracies in the film that he would point out.

First, he maintains, she never said that the US was in Iraq “because Saddam Hussein attacked America.” He suggests this is a deliberate twisting of a comment she made to her son as he prepared to deploy to Iraq, noting that he was going to fight Al Qaeda in that country.

On the question of Britain’s head of government, he does not claim to know whether she actually made that comment. But he asks with a laugh, “Who do you think said that they had just finished campaigning in 57 states and only had one left to go? That’s a pretty big gaffe, don’t you think?” But, he notes, the media didn’t say a word. “That was Barack Obama who said that,” so don’t talk about goofs on the campaign trail, he says.

The media, he adds, gave Palin a raw deal back in 2008. “I know the way Sarah Palin thinks, and I’m pretty sure she didn’t mean that she really didn’t know who the head of the British government was.”

This debate over political and historical films will no doubt continue, says Syracuse University popular-culture expert Robert Thompson, because the stakes are high. If you put a movie up against a history book, he says, “which one do you think people will remember?”

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