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    ‘Game Change’ more complex than a caricature of Palin and McCain

    HBO's portrayal of '08 Palin, McCain campaign captures the iconic moments

    Ed Harris is John McCain and Julianne Moore is Sarah Palin in HBO’s “Game Change.’’
    Ed Harris is John McCain and Julianne Moore is Sarah Palin in HBO’s “Game Change.’’

    “Game Change’’ is not a Sarah Palin hatchet job. But it’s certainly no love letter either.

    Instead, the HBO film premiering Saturday at 9 p.m. is a compelling, sometimes funny, sometimes poignant dramatization of the behind-the-scenes machinations of the Republican side of the 2008 presidential campaign that is unlikely to sway already entrenched opinions on both sides about any of its main players.

    The two-hour movie is based on the 2010 book of the same name by reporters John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. But where the book took a wider-angle view of the campaign - including the candidacies of Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and eventual victor Barack Obama - the film narrows its focus to the John McCain/Sarah Palin ticket.

    Julianne Moore has the look of Sarah Palin down, but she also portrays her steely backbone too.

    Weaving actual news and interview footage from the campaign around the drama, “Game Change’’ takes viewers into the conference rooms, hotel suites, and in one case, McCain’s Sedona, Ariz., home to peek in at the sausage-making.

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    (Both McCain and Palin have said they will not watch the film and have repudiated some of its content, while HBO sent out a letter to critics recently underscoring the vast amount of research done by the filmmakers.)

    Julianne Moore’s portrayal of Palin, of course, is drawing the most interest.

    The Oscar-nominated actress (“Far From Heaven,’’ “The Hours’’) likely has an Emmy nomination in her future. She does much more than an impersonation - although it is also that - of the former Alaska governor.

    Moore clearly has empathy for Palin. So, yes, the hair, makeup, famously schmancy and unwanted clothes, and folksy mannerisms are perfect in the iconic moments dramatized - including the stunning convention speech, the disastrous Katie Couric interview, and the vice presidential debate. But Moore also illuminates Palin’s steely backbone, magnetism, deep sense of faith, and most of all, the enormous pressure under which she was operating as she juggled emotional family matters - a son serving in Iraq, a pregnant teen daughter, a special needs newborn - and newfound global scrutiny.


    Moore’s Palin seesaws between triumph and burnout - portrayed at one point as nearly catatonic from the stress of absorbing complicated issues on ever-growing and painfully comic piles of index cards - and you feel the spectacularly unprepared Palin’s desire to get it all right without compromising her principles, or her image, too egregiously.

    The likewise Oscar-nominated Harris (“Pollock,’’ “Apollo 13’’) and screenwriter Danny Strong give McCain a rough and tumble quality (and a potty mouth) as well as painting him as a true patriot and a savvy, scrappy man of ambition.

    Moore and Harris may have the higher profile roles, but it is Woody Harrelson who is the real star of the film as McCain campaign strategist Steve Schmidt. In a strong, quiet performance, Harrelson portrays Schmidt as a smart, thoughtful, loyal man who is trying to do right by his boss and his country but becomes increasingly alarmed as Palin becomes more powerful and less of a team player. Sarah Paulson also impresses as Palin aide Nicolle Wallace, whose job to prepare Palin becomes combative.

    While the overall tone of “Game Change’’ is serious - like 2008’s “Recount’’ also written by Strong and directed by Jay Roach (of the “Austin Powers’’ films) - humor filters throughout. At one point during debate prep, Palin apparently kept referring to Democratic vice presidential hopeful Joe Biden as “Senator O’Biden.’’ When the aides throw up their hands in frustration and tell her to just call him Joe, she points out that she’s never met him.

    Whether “Game Change’’ is a definitive accounting of what happened, and whether some viewers will accept it as such is unknowable. But from a dramatic standpoint is the film entertaining? You betcha.

    Sarah Rodman can be reached at