|Julianne Moore plays two sides of Sarah Palin in the HBO movie|
That's the question I kept asking myself while watching HBO's original movie about the 2008 McCain/Palin campaign for the second time tonight. I went to an advanced screening on Tuesday night feeling that the movie didn't make Palin look bad, or at least worse than she made herself look. Some moments were too public not to be included, and many of them - the Katie Couric interview, the comment about Alaska's proximity to Russia on Charlie Rose - don't put Palin in the best light.
There were also moments, however, when Sarah Palin the hopeless naif and Sarah Palin the cunning politician took a backseat to Palin the person. Watching Julianne Moore, as Palin, comforting her sobbing daughter Bristol while the media tears the teen to shreds, or the tenseness that creeps into her face while talking to her son Track, fighting in Afghanistan, is to watch a devoted mother trying to grapple with her children's pain. It's heart wrenching. Similarly, watching the kindness with which Palin greets people with Down's Syndrome in rope lines is to understand just why people were so taken with her. It's these scenes that seem to justify the many critics who claimed that the film encourages the audience to empathize with her.
But then there is the moment when Palin hisses to campaign manager Steve Schmidt (a wonderful Woody Harrelson) that she will do what she wants, because she is singlehandedly carrying the campaign. Or the resigned worry in McCain's (an uncanny Ed Harris) voice when he refuses to curb his running mate because, as he says, "she might start turning on me." And then there's the truly unflattering moment when Schmidt tells Palin to go off her diet, heavily implying that she suffered from an eating disorder. I dislike Palin as much as anyone, but that accusation struck me as over the line; I suspect that no film about a male politician would stoop to that kind of low.
The film certainly puts the blame on Palin for torpedoing McCain's shot at the presidency. But it also, through footage of Palin suggesting the McCain campaign go dirty juxtaposed with crowds screaming for Obama's blood and calling the president a terrorist, seems to blame Palin for the toxic polarization that is currently ripping the GOP apart. I've said that the current Republican primary, which has at this point turned into a parody of itself at least three times, does nothing but make the McCain/Palin campaign look good by comparison. However, when Palin's "real America" rhetoric is contrasted with the poisonous invective of Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, it really starts to look like the blame's on her.
That might be true, but then again it might not. Palin is certainly a politician who knows how to take advantage of people's fears and prejudices, but Karl Rove was dragging opponents' names through the mud long before McCain and Palin were. Plus, it's not like Palin was the only McCain player who wanted to go dirty: the film shows McCain resisting attack ads and only reluctantly bringing up Obama's connection with Bill Ayers and Reverend Wright, but one has to imagine that those conversations went a little differently in reality.
So, does the movie humanize Palin? Yes and no. As another attendee of the advanced screening told me, "At times I forgot about the actual election. For the first part of the movie, I liked her, and I hoped she would win. But then she went crazy, and I realized she definitely should not win." That abrupt switch, marked by "then she went crazy," is the mark of a humanizing process that doesn't go far enough. It might not be possible to humanize Sarah Palin - she has said and done some fairly despicable things during her time in the public eye. If so, the attempt to humanize Palin really works against the film's argument about her role in the vicious partisanship of contemporary politics.
This suggests that maybe we're asking the wrong question. The important issue might not be whether the movie does humanize Palin, but whether it should. After all, this is the woman who agreed with an inflammatory news article that suggested Obama's desire to hold BP accountable for the devastating Gulf Coast oil spill was comparable to Hitler's persecution of Jews in Nazi germany. Humanizing her might not be the best policy.