My inaugural article for The Lawrentian was essentially 700 words about how I thought the movie “Bombshell” tried to say something but ended up saying nothing. Women standing up to Roger Ailes and eventually getting him fired from his position as the head of Fox News Corporation is a big deal, but the lack of conviction and decision to focus less on Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson and more on a fictional stand-in for a female Fox producer made the whole empowering message behind the headlines fall flat. I continue to stand by that and was quite vindicated when it only received three Oscar nominations: two in acting categories and only one win for makeup and hairstyling. This win for makeup and hairstyling was absolutely deserved; Charlize Theron and John Lithgow look uncannily like Meygn Kelly and Roger Ailes respectively, but the strength of the makeup department and the actors performances could not do enough to bolster the shallow characterization of the two in the script. Making a movie about recent events that delves beneath the surface is still possible and I recently was reminded of a movie that does just that.
While curating my “watched” section on my newly created Letterboxd account, I came across a movie that I had not really thought about in a while, but is a perfect example of a movie correcting all the things that “Bombshell” got wrong. “Game Change,” directed by Jay Roach, is a television movie that aired on HBO in 2012 and told the behind-the-scenes story of how Sarah Palin, played by Julianne Moore, incited both the rise and demise of John McCain’s 2008 Presidential Campaign. Palin, being chosen as McCain’s (Ed Harris) running mate, was meant to be a turning point for their campaign. She was a firecracker, a pragmatist, a champion for her home state of Alaska and importantly, a woman. Like one of McCain’s aides says to the Senator in the movie, “This is a woman with a gun John! Come on the base is gonna be doing backflips!” However, they quickly find out that Palin has some very visible weaknesses, particularly when it comes to foreign policy. Before McCain’s camp knew it, these weaknesses were exposed on national television when Palin famously claimed in an interview with Katie Couric that Alaska’s proximity to Russia was somehow legitimate foreign policy “experience.” “Game Change” chronicles not only the big moments from Palin’s announcement as McCain’s running mate to his loss in November, but also the specific trials and frustrations faced by both Palin and the McCain camps throughout the process. By focusing on Palin’s headstrong nature while being placed under the microscope of a nation, Moore is able to show the insecurity and stubbornness of a woman under immense and ever increasing pressure in a way that is both realistic and nuanced. As Palin becomes more and more swept up in a campaign that depends so heavily on her, the viewer is able to understand why she refuses to talk to campaign advisor Nicole Wallace (Sarah Paulson) until the specific Alaskan poll number she requested arrive. By following her tumultuous political and emotional journey from start to finish, viewers from any political persuasion are able to sympathize with Palin and contextualize the 2008 McCain campaign in a way they were not able to before.
“Bombshell” does not allow for the story to have this deeper level to it. We sympathize with Kelly and Carlson because of the awful things that they were subjected to in the workplace, but not because we see how they struggle with them outside of that environment. The movie tells us why it is a big decision for these women to sue Fox News, but it does not show why. “Game Change” shows us why the characters we are following do what they do, why Sarah Palin is so frustrated by carrying a campaign on her shoulders while attacks come at her left and right and we are better-informed viewers for it. It is possible to show another side of a news cycle saga that gives it a deeper meaning, the writer and directors just need to be prepared to take that emotional swing.