- - Thursday, March 8, 2012

The narrative of HBO’s “Game Change” will be familiar to anyone who followed the arc of the 2008 campaign season — so familiar, in fact, that it raises the question of why the movie was made.

Director Jay Roach and screenwriter Danny Strong offer a mostly respectful summary and recitation of a string of pivotal moments from Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign, but little insight. Viewers will learn nothing that’s genuinely new and will not see anything in a different light. To put it in the parlance of political pundits, the movie lacks vision.

Instead, it chases Sarah Palin and the infinite loops of hype that have accompanied her every word and move since the 2008 campaign. “Game Change” presents itself as a sort of origin story — who Mrs. Palin is and how she came to be. But the movie reveals more about the media’s compulsive obsession with her than it does about Mrs. Palin herself.

With no vision, the movie settles for rehash and re-enactment. Faced with a superstar political rival in Barack Obama, Republican Sen. and GOP presidential nominee John McCain (Ed Harris) picks Mrs. Palin (Julianne Moore), the little-known governor of Alaska, as his running mate. She makes a splash, which turns into a crash, and the campaign becomes as much about Mrs. Palin as Mr. McCain.

The story is lifted mostly from a 2010 book of the same name by political reporters Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, although the movie focuses almost exclusively on the small portion of the book about Mrs. Palin.

With so much left out, the movie expends considerable energy leading viewers through expository background.

Woody Harrelson plays top McCain campaign adviser Steve Schmidt, and we view the proceedings largely from his perspective. But Mr. Harrelson seems to spend most of his screen time helping the audience along with chunks of banal expository dialogue. Often he seems more like a narrator verbally footnoting the scenes than a character within the story. And when Mr. Harrelson is not explaining things to viewers, clips from cable news are: So much of the story is told through low-resolution snippets of news-network coverage that the movie sometimes feels like a YouTube highlight reel of the 2008 campaign.

The use of these clips also suggests how media-centric the film is. Like many in the media, the filmmakers clearly are fascinated with the former Alaska governor, who is the film’s subject and driving force. They depict her variously as a natural political star, a sullen and difficult narcissist and an unfairly maligned family woman thrust unexpectedly onto the national stage.

But not only does the film not manage to connect the disparate personas, it doesn’t even try. The Sarah Palin we see in the movie is merely the Sarah Palin we’ve seen in so many news reports; the movie seems content to repeat familiar scenes without revelations. When the credits roll, she remains a cipher.

It made sense to investigate Mrs. Palin during the 2008 campaign, and she revealed a number of flaws as a candidate. But the media spin cycle has continued without interruption ever since. The media can’t quit pursuing its Palin fix.

Four years later, after most of the country has moved on, it’s not clear why the most respected network on television and Hollywood A-lister Tom Hanks, who co-produced the movie, have continued to occupy themselves with this woman. She’s stopped holding rallies, quit running for office. Her recent proclamations in the GOP primary campaign have had no impact. Her political influence is on the wane. What demand was there for this sort of treatment?

The very existence of HBO’s “Game Change” suggests that coverage of Mrs. Palin long ago stopped feeding any general public obsession with her and serves instead to feed the media’s. That the resulting production is so lightweight merely reveals the emptiness of this obsession.

The script leaves little for Julianne Moore to add. What success she has is almost entirely technical, offering minimal interpretation. It’s a flawless impersonation, but never rises above the level of mimicry — a problem that plagues the movie as a whole.

“Game Change” attempts to make up for its thinness though an accumulation of minor details — the clothes, the sets, the tics, the knowing looks and the speeches and interviews themselves, all are carefully reconstructed. But it’s all meaningless minutiae, adding nothing to what’s already known.

Political campaigns often struggle to define what they’re about. This movie about a political campaign suffers from the same problem.

★★

TITLE: “Game Change”

PREMIERE: March 10 at 9 P.M. on HBO