Saturday, March 10, 2012

Schmidt Agonistes
Game Change - The Movie

UPDATED: 11-March-12

This weekend, HBO will broadcast a highly promoted dramatization of Game Change – John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s novelization of the 2008 presidential campaign. I read the paperback version and am looking forward to seeing the docudrama.

I posted a review of the book in December 2010 and will extract a few observations here that may (or may not) be relevant to the broadcast.

Heilemann and Halperin make extensive use of anonymous sources to bolster their claim of an ultimate insider perspective with unique insights into the historic 2008 campaign. I found this conceit exaggerated at best. The claim is easily tested. Bloggers and commenters left a contemporaneous record of what was known and not known about the campaigns from the outside. In my review I endeavor to compare the key insider insights claimed by the authors to the record of what was known by those of us on the outside looking in from blogs like this. The ultimate insider vs. the ultimate outsider perspective if you will.

Based on the trailers and promotions, the HBO movie focuses exclusively on John McCain and Sarah Palin, which represent about 4 of the 23 chapters in the book. Sarah Palin is portrayed in an unfavorable light in the book and movie (although some pre-broadcast reviews indicate the movie is more even handed). However, she is not the only high profile woman in the 2008 campaign who is subjected to an unflattering portrait in the book.

Arguably, the late Elizabeth Edwards suffered even worse treatment by the authors than Sarah Palin. One of my complaints about the book is how Elizabeth was caricatured (quite literally in the image from the linked NY Magazine excerpt above) as a shrill, borderline insane, screaming banshee. If you cut through the novelistic embellishments and compensate for likely self-serving sources from Edward's staff, her reported offenses distill down to being obsessed about John Edward's campaign, occasionally yelling at her cheating husband and cursing out the staff. In other words - your average American housewife.

The portrayal of both women begs the question of sources. From my review:
“It is clear that this book was anonymously sourced primarily by the operatives, campaign staff, aides, and professional politicos who managed the major campaigns. While not all emerged unscathed, to the extent that any sympathetic characters are to be found in Game Change – it is these campaign operatives. Whether they deserve that treatment is another matter. To a large extent, the authors reported their stories, through their eyes, and unsurprisingly, they told stories that made themselves look good. In the process, most of the politicians, candidates, their spouses, and competing campaign staff are made to look bad."
Nowhere is this more obvious or true than in the four chapters distilled into the movie. It is clear from the promotion and early reviews of Game Change The Movie that Steve Schmidt (played by Woody Harrelson) is the primary source for the four chapters of the book that the movie is based on. Schmidt comments on the movie:
“This was a surreal experience for me,” Schmidt said of the movie, in which he is played by actor Woody Harrelson. “Ten weeks of the campaign are condensed into a two-hour movie. But it tells the truth of the campaign. That is the story of what happened.”
Should we be surprised that the primary source for the book and movie says the book and movie reflect the truth of the campaign? Should we uncritically accept Schmidt’s self-serving version of the story vs. self-serving criticism offered by principals Palin and McCain?

As usual, how one responds probably reveals more about the bias one brings to the story than anything else.

My view has not changed from the time Palin was selected. McCain was going to lose the election. We were in the middle of an economic crisis and two unsettled wars of unknown cost, unknown duration, and unknown outcome.The Republicans were blamed. The only outside chance for the McCain candidacy was exactly this kind of a “game changing” move. It almost worked. In the end, Sarah Palin was not up to the task and failed the “vetting by fire” of intense media scrutiny in a national campaign. The McCain campaign threw the dice because they had to, and it came up snake eyes. The game was not changed by the Palin pick, and neither was the outcome of the election altered by the Palin pick.

They say that history is written by the victors. In the version of history we'll see in HBO's Game Change, Steve Schmidt will attempt to turn that axiom on it's head.

UPDATE: 11-March-12

Watched the movie - well acted, well told, well played. See it, but keep a generous helping of salt handy, remembering the most sympathetic characters in the story were also the "anonymous" sources for this version of the story.

Around the 'sphere: Nicolle Wallace apparently felt compelled to respond to John Podherotz questioning how she is portrayed in the movie and her role in the campaign:
"Nicolle Wallace’s catastrophic guidance could have been portrayed in several ways. It could have been played as a simple goof, a wrongheaded political calculation. Or as an example of a kind of golly-gee naïveté, with Wallace being snowed by a seductive Couric. Or as a careerist move killing two birds with one stone, with Wallace seeking to stay in the good graces of her former colleague Couric despite several years of working for Republicans. Needless to say, that is not how Nicolle Wallace is portrayed in Game Change, the new HBO movie based on the John Heilemann-Mark Halperin bestseller. No, indeed. Wallace is the movie’s heroine. She is the voice of reason, the increasingly alarmed witness to the evil McCain has perpetrated by foisting Palin upon the world."
Wallace Responds:
“Game Change” is not a movie about Sarah Palin. And it’s definitely not about staffers like me... “Game Change” is like reliving the most tumultuous professional roller coaster ride on which I’ve ever been. It brought back the highs – Palin’s surprise selection and her glorious moment on stage at our national convention – and the now well-documented lows."
Self-serving narratives do not have to be motivated by red blue politics. There is a good reason why Steve Schmidt and Nicolle Wallace come across as sympathetic characters in "Game Change" despite being principal actors shaping the events portrayed in "Game Change".
Wallace and Schmidt were the primary “anonymous” sources used by Heilemann and Halperin to construct the narrative of this portion of the book that was made into the movie. As such, it is silly to put any stock in Wallace and Schmidt statements that the movie was accurate. That is kind of like an attorney in a trial asking a witness whether they like their own testimony and agree with it and think it is true.
We watched the story as Wallace and Schmidt wanted it told. It is probably mostly accurate. It also probably has a lot of self-serving spin in the narrative. Spinning the media is – after all – what Wallace and Schmidt do for a living.
Cross-Posted at Donklephant

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