After hearing Chris Matthews rave about the HBO movie Game Change all last week on Hardball after viewing a preview copy then hearing other pundits and journalists pick up the cheering after a premiere screening at the Newseum late in the week, I was wondering if I would be headed for a letdown after actually watching the docudrama.
Let me add a bit of context before talking about Game Change. I have traditionally drawn a firm line between fiction and non-fiction, and this film would have landed on the fiction side of the equation.
About ten years ago, two things happened that changed my perspective a bit on hard and fast rules in this area.
While attending a small, international conference of film scholars in Wales (with such luminaries as Laura Mulvey, Brian Winston, and Peter Wollen), I became more aware of how the rich tradition of British documentary has shaped cultural understanding of the genre. In the UK, docudramas are considered a subset of documentary while in the US that has not been a conventional understanding of category.
Also, in 2003, I saw the film American Splendor, a brilliant movie that blurs lines with amazing success to present a portrait of cartoonist Harvey Pekar that includes animation, interviews, archival footage from The Late Show With David Letterman, and narrative sequences performed by actors but developed from Pekar’s comic book accounts of his lived experience (books authored by Pekar but drawn by various artists). How to categorize this film? I haven’t any idea, but it is a terrific movie. I also believe it is “true.”
Game Change takes one piece of the nonfiction book by journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin called Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime and crafts it into a film about Sarah Palin’s role as vice presidential candidate alongside John McCain.
It is “true”? That may depend on the viewer’s perspective because parts of the film are certain to be contested, but filmmakers worked closed with the political journalists who wrote the book and conducted additional interviews to try to achieve as much authenticity as possible.
Of course, the lines are blurred further also because so much actual interview footage and elements such as real political ads and Saturday Night Live spoofs are included and integrated into sequences with actors playing key roles. And, the actors do a tremendous job. Chris Matthews said repeatedly that he felt like he was watching Sarah Palin in the film, and I couldn’t agree more. Julianne Moore is terrific as are her co-stars including Woody Harrelson and Ed Harris.
Still, before actually watching, I was lukewarm about the prospect of sitting down and watching the movie. Haven’t we all seen that before? Especially those of us who are political junkies? Watching the film is another matter. I was riveted to the screen.
If you don’t have HBO, find a friend who does and commandeer the small screen. Chris Matthews said he watched it twice in a row (I didn’t do that) and that he’s sure he’ll watch it at least 20 more times in his lifetime (I won’t do that), but I will watch it again with friends (like Denise Franklin) who are clamoring to see Game Change.