The one-shot films produced by HBO rarely reach the same high level as the weekly series presented by the cable giant.
Perhaps because a series can generate so much more revenue than two-hour made-for-TV film, shows like “Sex & the City” and “Game of Thrones” and “Girls” have production values that are as good as most Hollywood films.
The HBO movies have been another story, with many of them shot too quickly and too cheaply for their ambitious subject matter. “Game Change,” which was shown on HBO earlier this year and will be released on DVD next week, is a thrilling exception to that rule — a beautifully produced and expertly acted political drama that would make the grade as a theatrical release (if there was still room in multiplexes for this kind of movie).
The smart thinking that went into “Game Change” began with the decision to focus on only one element in the bestselling book about the 2008 presidential election — instead of trying to cram everything in, director Jay Roach and screenwriter Danny Strong zero in on the gamble the Republican Party took in choosing Sarah Palin to run with John McCain.
Although the right wing media called “Game Change” a hatchet job, I was surprised by how much sympathy I felt for Palin as portrayed in the movie by Julianne Moore (who richly deserved the Emmy she won in the fall).
Roach and Strong show us how desperate Republican operatives struggled to come up with a viable female vice-presidential nominee in a lame attempt to court angry Hilary Clinton supporters after Barack Obama took the Democratic presidential nomination. (The movie never gets into the speculation that the Republicans would have picked a black VP candidate if Clinton had beaten Obama in the run-up to the Democratic convention.)
Palin is not presented in villainous terms in the movie, but as someone who suddenly finds herself way out of her depths. The governor of Alaska has a strong enough ego to want to be a player on the national stage, but events there revealed her lack of preparation (and qualifications) to be one heartbeat away from the presidency.
There is a ghoulish black comedy aspect to “Game Change” as we watch the high-powered campaign aides realize what a disaster Palin is. But we squirm as much for the candidate as we do for the aides in one sequence where it becomes clear Palin has no idea of what the Federal Reserve Bank does.
Moore’s Palin gets tougher as the movie proceeds but there is nothing mean about the performance — the character is simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Because so much of the film is set in hotel rooms and on airplanes, we don’t become as aware of the budget constraints as has been true of some of the other HBO features. Roach zeroes in on the characters, almost all of whom find themselves in terrible traps, and the actors supporting Moore are superb (especially Sarah Paulson as the woman who has to coach the governor during the early days of the campaign).
If, like me, you don’t subscribe to HBO and you missed the cable airings, you have a real treat in store with the DVD and digital release next week.