As playwright Peter Stone once noted, history writes lousy drama. He should know; he was one of the authors who took on the events surrounding the writing of the Declaration of Independence and turned it into 1776, a musical. Characters and actions in real life are complicated, and coming up with a simple story arc that reveals more than just what happened means that you have to create characters that are more than just echoes of the historical figures being portrayed on the stage or screen. Put simply, you have to start from scratch and create compelling characters and situations that reflect that core of the character and their objectives.
So turning a recent event into a drama requires more than just using the film clips and transcripts of interviews or even the background from a tell-all book. That’s the background, but it’s up to the writer and the actor to turn the characters into something worth listening to and caring about.
The HBO film Game Change, directed by Jay Roach from a screenplay by Danny Strong, is based on the book about the 2008 presidential campaign by John Heileman and Mark Halperin. The film focuses on the selection of Sarah Palin as the vice presidential running mate for John McCain and the realization on the part of Steve Schmidt, the McCain adviser who selected her, that they had created a monster. It wasn’t the fact that Gov. Palin was unaware of the basics of foreign policy or geography, didn’t read newspapers, or was uncontrollable on the campaign trail. It was the fact that they had chosen someone purely to shake up the dynamics of the presidential race with little or no thought about what would happen if they won and Sarah Palin became the Vice President of the United States.
There was a lot of pre-show chatter, including a preemptive raspberry from Ms. Palin herself. Well, that’s not surprising, but it’s also in keeping with the fact that a movie — even if it’s “based on a true story” — isn’t going to be historically accurate. Julianne Moore isn’t Sarah Palin, and for all the method acting work she did studying the character she was going to play, she could never be Sarah Palin. But what she could do is create a multi-dimensional character, showing her strengths as well as her weaknesses, and making us care about her. Ms. Moore went to great lengths to look and sound like Ms. Palin, but she also created a role that went beyond the two dimensions that we saw on the news in 2008 or heard on her bus tour last summer. It is a brilliant interpretation of a flawed and tragic character.
Woody Harrelson did a masterful job with his role of Steve Schmidt, the Svengali of the campaign who was responsible for finding the “game changer” that would turn the election away from electing a “celebrity” — Barack Obama — to electing John McCain… by selecting their own celebrity. Picking a running mate has always been a political ploy — who can we get to balance the ticket? — but never before had it been so cavalierly considered: who can we get to get a great post-convention poll bounce? At the end of the film it’s apparent that Mr. Schmidt realizes what he has done to the future of American elections, and the awareness of his actions dawns on him to a degree that frankly is lost on his counterparts in real life. After all, the current election cycle is providing us with candidates who have no business running for the presidency, and they’re being advised and coached by people who took their lesson from McCain-Palin 2008. (No wonder the real Steve Schmidt got out of the business.) Watching the slow realization by Mr. Schmidt that what started out as a campaign tactic and grew into a disaster both politically and historically by truly changing the political landscape from considering what happens after the election to just winning it was thrilling, and affirms my belief that Woody Harrelson is one of the most underrated actors in the business.
The real Sarah Palin dismissed the film as “fact-free.” In a way, that’s a compliment; movies like this are not supposed to withstand the test of historical accuracy. (The same can be said of films that glorify characters that Ms. Palin admires such as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady.) They use the events as the framing for the tales that reveal more about our true nature and what we learn about ourselves. That’s the essence of drama. If you want history, Sarah, read a newspaper.