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'Game Change' a better Palin plug than 'The Undefeated?'

Ben Anderson
Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin in "Game Change."
HBO screenshot

Last week, pay-for-play cable channel HBO posted the teaser trailer for its upcoming chronicle of the John McCain-Sarah Palin 2008 presidential ticket, starring Ed Harris as McCain and Julianne Moore as Palin.

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"Game Change" began production in the early days of 2011, and in the meantime, Palin took a bus tour, played a will-she-or-won't she game with the media, her fans and the American public in general about whether she would run for president in 2012, then ultimately and unexpectedly announced that she wouldn't seek the nomination.

Also over the summer, as Palin-mania was at arguably its highest point since her announcement as John McCain's running mate in the 2008 election, documentary filmmaker Stephen Bannon released "The Undefeated," an unabashed ode to all things Palin. The film may have made money between its run in theaters and its subsequent run on Pay-Per-View -- the numbers are a bit murky. Alaska Dispatch's Amanda Coyne reported that Bannon had invested about $1 million of his own money in the film, though Box Office Mojo reports a return of just over $100,000.

One thing that is clear -- critics hated it. It currently holds a zero percent "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the critical aggregation site, based on 15 professional reviews. Users gave it only 38 percent -- although a fair portion of those may have come from users who never even saw the movie but hold a particular distaste for the politically polarizing Palin. It fared even more poorly on the Internet Movie Database, where it holds a paltry 1.7 out of 10 rating, based on more than 1,300 reviews.

"The movie may tempt even the most ardent conservatives to emulate their idol's tenure as governor and walk out halfway through," Time's Richard Corliss wrote in his review. The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf sparked a wave of backlash after reporting his one-man attendance of a midnight opening showing of the film.

But in a testament to the allure of Palin, Friedersdorf later reported that he'd become the subject of a conspiracy theory after conservative commentator Andrew Breitbart accused Friedersdorf of attending an unadvertised screening. Friedersdorf also said that his piece on the unseen "Undefeated" was the most-trafficked story he'd ever written in his four months at the Atlantic.

From the teaser for "Game Change," that sense of uncertain excitement that much of the country felt in Palin's grace period -- from when McCain announced the wild card from Alaska as his running mate to her electrifying speech at the 2008 Republican National Convention -- that led to a national obsession is partly what the filmmakers are counting on in telling the Palin story.

Even more, they might be counting on HBO's track record of making commercially -- and especially critically -- successful original films and series. Where "The Undefeated" was an unapologetically pro-Palin film, more style than substance, the star power of "Game Change" (the three lead actors are all multiple Oscar nominees) gives an early endorsement to the likelihood of critical appeal. Julianne Moore looks to be laying it on thick with Palin's inexplicably midwestern accent, and Harris is a surprisingly close approximation of McCain.

And while the teaser captures that moment when Palin, literally and figuratively, stepped out on the national stage, the film itself doesn't stop in those moments after Palin delivered her speech accepting vice presidential nod. Instead, the HBO trailer says that it will follow the McCain-Palin ticket all the way "to their ultimate defeat in the general election."

Which means that we get to cringe again during the Palin-Katie Couric interview, see a dramatization of Palin's $150,000 wardrobe snafu, and this writer is personally hoping for a Tina Fey cameo where the former Alaska Governor meets the former Saturday Night Live star backstage -- which Fey has herself chronicled in her book "Bossypants." 

But will a dramatized version of Palin's ascent to the national level stir up old, bad memories about the half-term governor, or will a treatment of not-so-ancient history with rose-colored glasses again romanticize Palin, who has recently come out with a "don't rule anything out" kind of message? 

The film doesn't premiere until after the first Republican primaries have taken place in January, February and March of 2012, but if Palin does make a move toward the nation's highest office, will "Game Change," a star-studded, high-concept production, give an unlikely Palin campaign an even more unlikely shot in the arm?

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com