Steve Schmidt's interview with Anderson Cooper for 60 Minutes went largely unnoticed by mainstream audiences in 2010, save for the political junkies, but it was one of those wonderfully-memorable moments which make for great television. As senior strategist for the McCain campaign, Schmidt played a major role in the decision to pluck Sarah Palin, then Governor of Alaska, out of obscurity and drop her onto the national scene.
In the interview, Schmidt is shockingly forthright and candid of what went wrong, practically admitting McCain's loss was largely due to Palin's rogue personality and ultimately, her lack of political understanding. One particularly interesting moment has Cooper bluntly asking if he regretted having Palin on the ticket, Schmidt fails to fully answer the question, which is quite revealing as to his true feelings.
In 'Game Change,' the adaptation of the bestselling book by journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, director Jay Roach ('Austin Powers' trilogy, 'Meet the Parents') uses this specific moment to open the film, which aired on HBO back in March. With a shaved-head and looking slightly thicker than usual, Woody Harrelson plays Schmidt, and he nails the scene. Only here, when Cooper asks the big question, Harrelson doesn't respond as quickly as Schmidt. Instead, he takes a long pause and looks off-camera with a disappointed, remorseful expression on his face. That expression says it all.
Admittedly, it's an overtly dramatized — almost funnily so — version of the actual interview, but it's effective at expressing the poignancy of the question, of articulating the pensive seriousness of that instant. Working from a script by Danny Strong (best known from his work on the 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' series), Roach expands that second the real-life Schmidt missed a beat into a two-hour flashback, where the character reflects on the campaign before giving an unsatisfying but still regretful reply. More importantly, Harrelson's expression establishes a visual motif of apprehensive glances during moments of optimism and confidence for McCain's presidential win. They indicate contradictory emotions within the scene and foreshadow the campaign's catastrophe loss.
For the rest of the 118-minute feature, we get more of the same. Real news coverage from the 2008 Presidential race meets fictional drama with a great deal of creative license. Impressively, that license is not with an unpropitious sentiment towards the former half-term governor. Certainly, the film doesn't necessarily paint a pretty picture either, revealing just how unprepared and inexperienced Palin really was for the position. When not struggling with highlights of 20th Century history or being brought up to date on current events, we see her infamously tapping away on her Blackberry or impolitely bossing everyone around. Then, there are moments when McCain (Ed Harris) simply avoids confronting her, either fearing her snappy, fiery personality or not dealing with how enormous a mistake she really was.
This unique behind-the-scenes look and sort-of exposé of the campaign is really about the pressure of contemporary politics, how soul-crushing and psychologically exhausting mudslinging can be on a person. Julianne Moore is an absolute marvel in the role — one minute humanizing a public figure continuously seen as the butt of political jokes, and the next making her a control freak enraptured by her sudden celebrity status. But in the end, Moore's astonishingly brilliant performance has us pitying her more than anything else. Moore completely disappears into the role, to the point that I almost had to remind myself it was not the real Palin.
This last summer, Roach was also responsible for the absurd political farce 'The Campaign,' starring Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis. In a strange and highly unconventional way, both movies are quite similar. Aside from the obvious, and their stark genre differences, both lay bare the dark inner workings of modern campaign strategies — one you can laugh at, the other you scorn with embarrassment. And in 'Game Change,' Roach approaches the subject matter with mature seriousness, intertwined with outstanding artistic inventiveness. Just prior to the announcement of Palin being McCain's running mate, a conversation between her and Schmidt inside the limo is drenched in deep, black shadows. It's an ominous, subtly foretelling moment of things to come, one of many beautifully photographed scenes which make the film a joy to watch.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
HBO Home Entertainment brings 'Game Change' to Blu-ray as a two-disc combo pack with a code for a downloadable Digital Copy and glossy slipcover. The first is a Region Free, BD50 disc while a DVD-9 sits comfortably on the opposing panel inside a blue, eco-cutout keepcase. At startup, the disc commences with a promo for HBO programming and afterwards, switches to main menu with full-motion clips and music.
'Game Change' debuts on Blu-ray with a remarkable and highly-detailed 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode. The freshly-minted transfer is razor-sharp, with crystal-clear clarity for a majority of the film's runtime. Individual hairs and the perfectly manicured hairdo on Moore are impeccably placed with resounding visibility of her color highlights. Fine lines on buildings, campaign buses and within crowds are distinct while threading in the costumes is as plain as day. Facial complexions appear natural with excellent lifelike textures, revealing every pore, wrinkle and blemish in the cast of actors.
The 1.78:1 image displays a bold, vivid palette from beginning to end with primaries providing the high-def presentation a lively, animated appeal. A vibrant, comfortably bright contrast also adds to the photography's energy and jubilant feel, serving as a kind of stark irony to the plot's final outcome. Intensely rich and penetrating blacks give the video a welcome cinematic quality and afford it a good dimensionality.
The HBO film also arrives with an excellent DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack that allows for more activity than the usual political drama. The results are surprisingly great and worthwhile.
A fair number of discrete ambient effects are employed to widen and enhance the imaging. Whether it's the wind blowing in the trees and birds chirping in the distance or the cheers and jeers of the crowd, the rears are effective at creating a convincing and satisfying soundfield, placing the listener right in the middle of the moment. Of course, this being a dialogue and character driven film, most of the activity is still located in the fronts where vocals are clean and intelligible. Channel separation is well-balanced with fluid movement across the screen. The mid-range exhibits lots of detail and superb distinction while low bass is deep and appropriate with a couple notably potent moments just for good measure.
'Game Change' is an absorbingly entertaining political drama that gives audiences a behind-the-scenes look at the McCain-Palin campaign. With terrific performances all around, especially Julianne Moore's uncanny portrayal of the former Alaskan Governor, the film is rich in detail and offers an engrossing story that successfully humanizes Sarah Palin. The Blu-ray arrives with superb picture quality and excellent audio. Supplements are in short supply, but political junkies will want to check this out for sure. Recommended.