Making a film about a real-life, well-known figure is never easy. You only have to watch the sentimental “Invictus” to see how translating a person’s life and likeness into a dramatic narrative can be disastrous.
But when you make a film about well-known figures that still have sway and power, it goes from difficult to downright dangerous.
When actor Danny Strong’s (“Mad Men”) first major screenplay “Recount” went into production under the supervision of director Jay Roach (“Dinner for Schmucks”) back in late 2007, it was a bold move — a retelling of the events surrounding the 2000 Florida recount that ultimately gave George W. Bush the presidency. Starring a high-profile cast, “Recount” went on to become an Emmy-nominated hit.
Now, three years later, Strong and Roach returned to the docudrama genre with the gripping “Game Change,” premiering tomorrow at 9 p.m on HBO. Based on the eponymous expose by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, the film chronicles the 2008 presidential election through the eyes of John McCain’s senior campaign strategist Steve Schmidt. Unlike “Recount,” which made an active attempt to focus on the behind-the-scenes men, “Game Change” casts well-known actors as John McCain (Ed Harris, “The Way Back”) and Sarah Palin (Julianne Moore, “A Single Man”).
Strong, who began the writing process back in 2010, was not apprehensive at approaching the project only two years after the election.
“I just thought it was a great story,” Strong said in an interview with the Wheel. “To me, even though it was two years later as opposed to five years later with ‘Recount,’ it just seemed like a history piece but a piece that was relevant to the time we were living in at the moment.”
As the film opens, we find Schmidt (Woody Harrelson, “Rampart”) looking with dread at the amount of support bestowed upon candidate Barack Obama. As Schmidt explains to John McCain (Ed Harris, “The Way Back”) they need a “game changer.” Schmidt’s eye falls to Sarah Palin (Julianne Moore, “A Single Man”), the charismatic governor of Alaska, as the wild card they need to jumpstart their campaign.
While the seemingly unflappable Palin at first proves to be a welcome shot in the arm, Schmidt and his co-workers soon discover that the governor has some fairly significant gaps of knowledge; namely, she admits to not knowing that North and South Korea are different countries, and she mistakenly claims that Saddam Hussein orchestrated the World Trade Center attacks.
After a disastrous interview with Charlie Gibson, Palin’s advisors begin drilling her on foreign policy issues. Eventually, the endless media scrutiny and stress of the campaign begin to take a toll on Palin’s mental state as she alternates between hysterical fits and periods of complete emotional paralysis.
Already, the film has been attacked by several critics (many of whom have yet to actually see it), including those in the McCain and Palin camps. Palin’s Super PAC has gone on record as calling it “historical fiction.”
The contention starts with the Heilemann and Halperin book, the film’s source material, which many criticized as being full of gossip and half-truths. Yet, in the course of his extensive research into the matter, Strong found that not to be the case.
Upon interviewing 25 of Palin’s close advisors (all of whom have chosen to remain anonymous) and asking them if the events in the books really transpired, 24 of those interviewed claimed the book was all true. Moreover, after screening a cut of the film to Schmidt, the former campaign manager responded with a simple, “that’s what happened.” For Strong, learning the nitty-gritty background of the campaign served as a validation for all the theories and speculation regarding Palin that he’d constructed while following the campaign three years ago.
“I thought she looked completely unprepared for what she had stepped into,” Strong said.
“I’ve spent most of my life as an actor, so I know what it’s like where you’re trying to remember your lines ... [when I read the book] I was stunned at how everything I was feeling as I watched the campaign was exactly what was happening. She was unprepared, and they were feeding her lines.”
Despite issues with her politics, Strong made a concerted effort to portray the vulnerable woman behind Palin’s persona. As part of his research, Strong read her memoir Going Rogue and incorporated Palin’s own words into the script.
“This is the work that needs to be done to make a good movie, which is figuring out how to make [the characters] into three-dimensional people,” Strong said. “It’s actually not even that difficult. Once you start interviewing people that worked with [Palin], they start telling you stories and giving you a side of someone that isn’t presented in 30 second or three minutes sound clips on the news.”
Strong’s path to becoming one of the acclaimed screenwriters in the industry was an unconventional one to say the least. Prior to “Recount,” Strong was perhaps best known for portraying Jonathan Levinson, the school nerd turned sorcerer turned arch-villain in “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer.”
“The first script I wrote was a vehicle for myself,” Strong laughed. “That was literally how I started writing — I wrote a script for myself to star in and I enjoyed the process so much that I decided to pursue a separate career as a screenwriter.”
Though Strong’s screenplay provided “Recount” with its anchor, he is quick to credit with Roach with much of the film’s success. Like Strong, Roach’s involvement with “Recount” appeared a bit unorthodox at the time. Before “Recount,” Roach was known for directing the “Austin Powers” movies as well as “Meet the Parents.” In a film where the eventual outcome is known by every viewer, Strong wanted someone who could bring suspense to a well-documented story and felt Roach was a fit.
“‘Meet the Parents’ for me was a perfect sample for what I wanted ‘Recount’ to be,” Strong explained. “[“Meet the Parents”] is this incredibly tense movie and the comedy comes from that tension. Well, if you just pull that out and just had tension that would be what we wanted ‘Recount’ to be, which is this taut, tense movie.”
More than being an entertaining look at a brutal and controversial campaign, “Game Change” shows a single depressing truth — American presidential elections have become a proverbial circus more focused on style than substance. Strong ultimately wishes that the film will bring this issue to viewer’s attention.
“I just hope [“Game Change”] makes people think long and hard about what they value in a leader,” he said. “Hopefully, it will make people value substance over celebrity or charisma. It’s literally that simple.”
— Contact Mark Rozeman.