Nicolle Wallace was the onetime consultant to CBS News and media aide to George W. Bush who was assigned to work with Sarah Palin after the Alaska governor was chosen as John McCain’s running mate. It was Wallace who assured the McCain campaign that her dear friend Katie Couric, a committed liberal with a history of interviewing Republicans and conservatives in a quietly nasty way, was the right journalist to conduct a major early interview with the extremely conservative vice-presidential nominee.
Palin has only herself to blame for how horribly she came off, but as she was the most hotly sought-after interview in the world at the time, the McCain campaign could have picked and chosen and been cleverly calculating about which journalist would win the prize. Wallace was responsible for one of the great blunders in political advance work of modern media history.
Now, imagine you’re making a movie about the Palin story, one that demonstrates a modicum of sympathy for Sarah Palin’s excoriation at the hands of the media. (I know, I’m talking crazy, but go with me here.) In such a movie, 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. It is through Wallace’s interactions with the vice-presidential candidate that we see confirmed every bad thing anyone has ever said about Palin (save that she is not the mother of Trig—it steers clear of that Sullivanian filth). Wallace (played by Sarah Paulson) delivers screenwriter Danny Strong’s inadvertently hilarious Blue State zinger when, dripping with righteous scorn during a confrontation with Palin, she says with disbelief, “Yeah, you’re just like Hillary.”
Wallace’s deeply principled revulsion is mirrored by that of Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson), the McCain campaign chief whose initial excitement at Palin’s political skills and smarts is fast superseded by his awareness of her religious fanaticism (Schmidt gets a horrified look on his face when she says she sees the hand of God at work) and her ignorance.
Yes, if ever you wanted circumstantial evidence that the sources within the McCain campaign who spent October 2008 dumping on Palin anonymously might have included Wallace and Schmidt, you need look no further than HBO’s Game Change. The movie presents a moral case for the disreputable conduct of aides who, we can presume, fearlessly drop dirty dimes anonymously to save their own standing in the liberal culture from which they desperately wish not to be excluded.
Like the book on which it is based, Game Change is a very entertaining conceit: It promises to tell you the truth about what goes on behind the closed doors of campaigns. The tome broke with campaign-book tradition by featuring interior monologues and conversations in which curse words were prominently featured every sentence, which gave Game Change a thrilling patina of you-are-there immediacy that, only two years after its publication, seems weirdly dated and prurient. The movie is in the same vein; we are supposed to be titillated by the fact that John McCain says the F-word and giggles while watching video clips of a primping John Edwards.
Whether you are titillated or not probably has to do with whether it shocks you that people who work in politics are in any way human. In this respect, Game Change handles Sarah Palin (Julianne Moore, blah) more charitably than you might expect. She is shown as a loving and caring mother with some kind of raw genius as a politician who is placed under almost unimaginable pressure at a moment’s notice when she is clearly unprepared for it. But in doing so, Strong and director Jay Roach exhibit not understanding but rather an almost excruciating condescension.
Game Change is mostly liberal catnip, but it does have a wider value. Every politician from now until doomsday should view it as a cautionary tale about choosing your aides wisely.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.