Reality television, HBO style

By Chuck Sigars | Mar 28, 2012


When Warner Bros. began early production on “PT 109,” a film based on John Kennedy’s famous South Pacific adventure during World War II, they did it with the full cooperation of the White House. The president himself had final approval on the actor who would play him in the movie. It’s good to be the president.

He picked Cliff Robertson, although Jackie wanted Warren Beatty. Good call, probably.

They must daydream, these people, see their political lives through prisms of future biographies, imagine the Cliff Robertsons, the sturdy, decent, workman-like actors who will capture their essence and make people forget all about that SNL guy. Probably no one will ever again get Kennedy’s gift of being casting director in chief, but a guy can dream.

“PT 109” didn’t hurt Robertson’s career, but he got lucky (and he stayed away from the accent, another tip from the prez). It’s always dicey, though. Politicians make a living by talking and accumulating film footage, by being familiar to their constituents.

We know how they move and talk, what their hair does and how their eyebrows jump. And as soon as they make a splash, there’s that guy on SNL, studying the video and working with the makeup people, searching for a tic to exaggerate.

I could list the good ones, the portrayals of political/historical figures that were pulled off by good actors, and it would be short. Anthony Hopkins, who actually is an excellent mimic, walked away from an imitation in “Nixon” and instead concentrated on creating a character.

I thought Josh Brolin’s take on George W. Bush was solid, also, even though he went for the voice and mannerisms more. I bought his Bush as a real person, though, as I did Michael Gambon’s LBJ in “Path To War,” and Bruce Greenwood’s pass at JFK in “13 Days.”

Otherwise, though, it’s a thin line between portrayal and parody and most don’t make it. I have sympathy, I watch, but I don’t expect much.

I saw “Game Change” the other day almost by accident, visiting a friend who had HBO and both of us having an afternoon free. I knew all about it, knew about the book, knew about the movie, knew about the actors, and actually remember something about that 2008 presidential campaign, imagine that.

And I’m thinking if John McCain didn’t get casting approval, he might as well have.

Ed Harris played McCain, starting right off with a vanity bonus: Harris is 61, roughly 10 years younger than McCain was in 2008, and it shows. He looked fit and powerful, ready to run for president and maybe a triathalon on the weekend.

From a distance, with maybe one eye closed, I caught a superficial resemblance at times, mostly the white hair comb-over, but otherwise this was the Ed Harris version of a candidate and it could have been anyone.

It was a wise choice on somebody’s part to avoid capturing McCain’s voice, which is high and feathery; Harris stuck with his solid baritone, wry and a little growly.

And given the story sources, which are a little shrouded but seem obviously to come significantly from Steve Schmidt, McCain’s political consultant, it wasn’t a surprise that this was the storybook John McCain, solid, decent, unfailingly kind to Sarah Palin throughout, passionate about his country and always wanting to do the right thing. I didn’t recognize him, in other words, but I bring my own biases and damn. I wanted to vote for that McCain.

Julianne Moore, on the other hand, went all in for Sarah Palin, more Brolin than Streep (but then). The odd Fargo-esque accent was there, as were the glasses, the hair, the look. This was not Tina Fey, as Brolin wasn’t Will Ferrell, although you work with what you have. Overexposure makes the job difficult, I would think, and Moore was excellent.

The critical consensus seems to be that if you weren’t a fan of Sarah Palin, you might soften up after seeing the movie, feel sympathy for this loving mother who had a newborn and a son heading off to war, who had been governor of a small state for less than two years, who was used to rural politics and being home for dinner.

And it’s easy to feel that, to imagine how bizarre and disorienting it must have been for this lady, shoved in front of the national press with a minimum of preparation. The film seems to be playing fair, showing her strengths when the campaign finally allows Sarah to be Sarah and her weaknesses when it came to serious policy wonkishness.

We see her frantically scribbling constant notes, but also going catatonic when the stress amps up. We see heartbreak on her face as she watches Fey mock her on TV, and genuine love and concern when she talks to her son in Iraq.

Still, it’s just a movie, not a documentary and not history. Mostly it was entertaining and fun, and I’m pretty sure if Ed Harris ever decides to run for president, he’s got my vote.

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