Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin in HBO's Game Change.
The easy, and therefore not very interesting, thing to say about HBO’s Game Change is that it avoids caricature. But then anything by a classy organization like HBO that stars the always classy Julianne Moore wouldn’t be a caricature anyhow.
What is interesting and important about Game Change is that it shows what the Republican right is really angry about. It is, of course, an essential principle of both good therapy and good cultural analysis that what you think you’re angry about is not really what you’re angry about. So when “conservative commentators,” to give them a generic name, say that they’re angry out of principle, that the left is refusing to allow them to apply their principles of small government, and all the rest of it, we may suspect that something else is going on. It is, after all, like white Southerners proclaiming that the Civil War was fought over principles, not about the enormous amounts of money being made by slave owners.
This is not to say that Palin and her admirers are necessarily being duplicitous. On the contrary, they have a real and legitimate cause for concern. Unfortunately, they have no way of talking about it, and even more unfortunately, there is nothing that anybody can do about it.
In Game Change the first time we see Palin (as various people have noted, Moore disappears into the character), she is at the Alaska State Fair with her children. It’s an important scene because it shows her in the only world that she knows and understands, the world of family and friends. What she does not understand, and what makes her a classic American innocent—at least for the purposes of Game Change—is that she believes that this world is enough.
In Game Change Palin believes that her satisfaction with family life in small-town America gives her adequate preparation to become Vice-President. She thus represents a microcosm of small-town Americans—I call them “small worlders”—who cannot understand life beyond their familiar world of family and friends.
Unfortunately for small worlders, we live in a global village of 24-hour news cycles, where—as Woody Harrelson as Steve Schmidt points out to an uncomprehending Palin—there is no such thing as local news any more. This is the crunch that Palin gets caught in—the disconnect between small-town America and the global village. (It's a telling detail that she wears a Wasilla Rangers jersey during debate prep.) Think of it like this: small-town America thrives on personal relationships, whereas the global village requires big-town credentials that force people to transcend their roots.
What this conflict comes to is a conflict between people and paper, and it’s one of the best things about Game Change that again and again it shows that the more Palin feels threatened by paper, the more she clings to people. In the infamous Katie Couric interview Palin founders because she has to admit that she can’t/doesn’t read. Some of the most telling scenes in Game Change show the tension between the staffers, who want her to read position papers, and her need to read email messages from her Prayer Warriors on her cell phone.
So the big takeaway from Game Change is that the Republican right, with its increasingly shrill jeremiads about the decline of America, is really talking about the loss of local autonomy as the global village presses itself upon us. (Hence their hatred of what Palin cleverly calls the “lamestream media,” i.e., CNN.) In Game Change Palin becomes increasingly frightened as she realizes that she is in way over her head; she becomes bitter and paranoid because nothing in her life experience has prepared her for what she is going through.
To return from Game Change to the real-life Sarah Palin in 2012, she is rich and getting richer because she represents and articulates the genuine anxieties of America’s small worlders. These are people who also find that nothing in their life experience, which has been defined by friends and family, prepared them for the complexities and upheavals of life in the 21st century.
Ultimately, then, Game Change is only nominally about politics; it’s really about something much larger and more significant—cultural change, as shown in the microcosm of a pivotal moment in one woman’s life.