"Game Change" depicts a devoted yet unhinged Sarah Palin

NEW YORK (Reuters) - There is one thing the new HBO movie "Game Change" won't alter after it airs on television in one week: Sarah Palin still will be loved by many Republican conservatives and loathed by liberal Democrats.

In the controversial new TV movie that aims at a behind-the-scenes portrait of the former vice presidential candidate, Julianne Moore portrays Sarah Palin as a devoted Republican who lacks basic knowledge of world affairs and careens out of control.

Adapted from parts of the bestselling book of the same name by journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, "Game Change" dramatizes Republican John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign and his choice of Palin as a running mate who was shaped into a political star, nearly leading to a nervous breakdown.

The goal, its writer says, is less about depicting McCain or Palin in any one way and more aiming for a nonpartisan, human look at what it takes to run for U.S. president and how the campaign became an exercise in shaping a political star.

Writer Danny Strong told Reuters he aimed to "accurately portray" the pressure Palin was under "for someone who has never been on the national stage, who was thrust on it literally overnight and becomes the lightning rod for attacks unlike any politician has experienced in such a short period of time."

"It is not a word-for-word re-creation of what happened," Strong said. "It is definitely a movie, but it's as fair and as accurate a telling of this event that we believe could possibly be done in a movie adaptation."

Yet, even before its March 10 air date, in the midst of the current tough Republican primary race, the TV movie has ruffled some political conservatives. Palin and McCain refused to be interviewed for the film and said they will not watch it.

On Thursday, Palin's political action committee SarahPAC released its own slick trailer rebutting the film, replacing "HBO Films" logo with "HBO Fiction" and the title with "Fact Change" followed by "We Know The Truth."

Along with using the "Game Change" book as a key source, Strong said he referred to Palin's own memoir, "Going Rogue," and interviewed 25 people close to the campaign using their anecdotes as a basis for his story.

Strong collaborated with "Austin Powers" director Jay Roach, who suggested Strong write the script after they both worked on the 2008 film "Recount," which chronicled events behind the 2000 presidential election between Al Gore and George W. Bush that was eventually decided in a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.


The film stars Ed Harris as McCain and is told mostly through the eyes of strategist Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson). He is depicted as the brains behind Palin's rise who ultimately regrets helping shape Palin into a dangerous political star.

"Game Change" kicks off in August 2007 with McCain asking Schmidt to join his team when his campaign is lacking. It soon skips ahead in time to McCain being convinced by aides that choosing Palin, who was Alaska governor at the time, as a running mate would excite the Republican party's conservative base and lure female voters.

But the film shows Palin never having been properly screened in a rushed, five-day vetting process. Under immense pressure, in some scenes she looks nervous and vulnerable, including before she steps onto the stage at the Republican convention to give a speech that made her a star of the party's conservative wing.

The film does not delve too deeply into Palin's personal life and family except to offer quick scenes of a close-knit clan and Palin as a supportive, affectionate mother.

"Game Change" does show an increasingly unstable politician who complains about being a political puppet while performing some of her now famous gaffes -- from an inability in an interview to name a newspaper she reads to knowing little about the genesis of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

When Palin, the character, is asked if she wants to take a break as aides rush to educate her in foreign affairs, she answers, "No way, this is flippin' awesome."

She is also shown under extreme stress. Aides worry she is heading toward a nervous breakdown as she refuses to eat and is obsessed with her poll ratings back home in Alaska.

But in some scenes, the film -- as does the SarahPAC video -- shows a charismatic, hard-working Palin whose Republican convention speech reshaped the race and how she attracted huge crowds at rallies and connects with voters.

Strong argues Palin and her aides would be surprised by how many scenes are sympathetic and "are rooting" for Palin, yet Palin has described the film as a waste of time. She told Fox News Sunday in February she was "not too concerned at all about an HBO movie based on a false narrative when there are so many other things that we need to be concerned about."

Strong said the film was never intended to be a biopic of Palin, but is meant to enlighten audiences on the "traumatic experience" of the making of a modern-day presidential candidate.

"People will get to understand what it is like to run for president and the pressure that you are under being inside the cauldron of a presidential campaign," he said.

Although the book was criticized by some for juicy tidbits and anonymous sourcing, Strong maintained it is accurate.

"I didn't want to partake in something that was considered inaccurate. Gossipy I will take as long as it is true, and in fact no one refuted the veracity," he said.

In the end, the film warns that both Palin and President Obama ushered in a new era of celebrity politicians.

"Now it takes a movie star charisma to get elected president. Obama and Palin, that's what they are, stars," one strategist concludes at the film's end.

(Reporting By Christine Kearney; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Patricia Reaney)


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