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Dead Tree Alert: Shiny Object Lesson

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In my new column in the print TIME magazine, I review the HBO movie Game Change, about the vice presidential nomination and trainwreck campaign of Sarah Palin in 2008. I don’t think it’s a very good movie. Sarah Palin and her defenders have also had a lot to say about the movie. She says it’s a false narrative that “presents a history that never happened.”

Palin and I each have our issues, but since this movie is bound to get even more politicized before it debuts March 10, I should make clear that saying the movie is bad and saying that it’s a lie are two different things.

My review is behind TIME’s paywall (subscription required), but the part I can share with you begins:

After the 1988 election, Saturday Night Live aired a sketch in which George H.W. Bush ran one last negative ad against Michael Dukakis. Repeating every attack against Bush’s vanquished opponent (Taxes! Flag burning! Willie Horton!), it closed, “On Nov. 8, you dodged a bullet. Bush–he beat a bad man.”

HBO’s Game Change (March 10) feels like the cable-TV version of that ad. If you think America dodged a bullet when Sarah Palin (Julianne Moore) lost the vice presidency, this movie is happy to agree. If you love the former Alaska governor, you will hate the film with the fire of a midnight sun. But even to this non–Palin supporter, it all feels like piling on–the campaign movie as blooper reel. …

In short, there were a lot of fascinating things about the 2008 election, and about Palin herself as an object of political devotion, derision and culture-war catalyst. But the movie generally, instead, focuses on an SNL-style portrayal by Julianne Moore—strong on the mannerisms but all surface—and a simple theme: Hoo boy! Can you believe this woman almost got elected vice president? Whether you believe it or not (I didn’t vote for her), it’s a lowest-hanging fruit approach. The movie seems to want to make a larger point about modern politics from the way Palin’s nomination was used by the flagging McCain campaign—as a shiny object to “change the narrative” and shift the buzz from Barack Obama—but the movie itself gets distracted by its own shiny object, Palin.

A review, however, is not a fact-check. (Nor can I vouch for the veracity of the book on which the movie was based, written by TIME’s Mark Halperin and New York magazine’s John Heilemann; I haven’t re-done and vetted the reporting of their entire book—most of which, by the way, was not about Palin.) HBO has responded to criticisms saying that the movie is based on not just on that book, but on many other published journalistic accounts and screenwriter Danny Strong’s own interviews with principals in the campaign.

MORE: Game Change: What Sarah Palin Wants Us to Remember About 2008

It’s not surprising that Palin—or another subject of an unflattering portrayal—would call it false, but while have no way of knowing whether the movie is 100% true in every part, I also tend to doubt that every reporter who’s covered the McCain-Palin campaign has falsified things. Much of the movie relies on matters of record—say, the Katie Couric interview disaster—and it doesn’t endorse some of the uglier rumors around Palin, like the ones that she is not the real mother of her son Trig. It may be that Game Change collects true incidents to create a caricatured picture of Palin—it definitely feels like that at times to watch it—but I can’t take Palin as the most objective judge of that.

But assuming Game Change is accurate, a movie can be accurate and still bad. It may be obvious but in this day and age I think it’s worth saying. When things like a TV movie get politicized in our cultural environment, the argument tends to get simplified like most political arguments do. If you are on one “side,” you are expected to hold a whole suite of beliefs. In other words: if you like Game Change, then you must also believe that the movie is 100% accurate and you must love Obama and hate conservatives. And if you dislike Game Change, then you must also believe the movie is dishonest, and you must love Palin and hate liberals. (And, of course, the opposite: if you know which politicians you like, then you should know whether you’ll like the movie before you even watch it.)

That kind of thing should be obvious, but if you watch more than a few minutes of cable-news debate about anything nowadays, you’ll see that it’s not. And I expect as the debate over Game Change intensifies—including among people who have not yet seen the movie yet already feel strongly, because they know what side they’re on—it will be even less so. People see what they want to see, and it may be that the debate over Game Change proves that better than Game Change the movie itself does.