I’ve been a little bit in love with Julianne Moore ever since 1997, when I first saw her in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights. There’s a dynamite scene late in the film when her character appears in family court to plead for custody of her son. It’s largely done in one shot; the camera slowly dollies into a medium close-up of her face as she realizes she’s losing the case and struggles to retain her composure. Shots like this best showcase Moore's skill as an actress: she has a great gift for letting emotions play out just behind her eyes. In addition to following her career closely in the years since Boogie Nights, I’ve discovered her earlier roles in two other extraordinary films, [Safe] (1995) and Vanya on 42nd Street (1994), in both of which she gives masterfully understated performances. So I can’t help but feel that her somewhat showier turn as Sarah Palin in the recent HBO movie Game Change, directed by Jay Roach and written by Danny Strong, is something of a misstep. It’s also, ironically, the role that could land her her first major acting award(s) at this year’s primetime Emmys and later at the Golden Globes.
Moore’s attention to nuance and her deep humanity—her ability to create believable, complicated, affecting characters—help bring dimension to her portrayal of a divisive and easily caricatured figure like Palin. The physical resemblance is also uncannily close. But the film’s screenplay feels perfunctory and hastily thrown together, and it doesn’t give her enough interesting things to do. This role calls for arias—moments that showcase Moore’s formidable talent. Instead, that talent is diffused over the course of the film, chopped up into snippets, sound bites. You get the feeling that Moore is often being asked merely to recite Palin’s greatest hits (the Russia line, the hockey mom joke, etc.). Like last year’s The Iron Lady—to which Game Change bears much resemblance—it relies too heavily on news footage, into too much of which Moore and Ed Harris (playing John McCain) have been cheaply Forrest Gump-ed. Any dialogue that strays from discussion of politics or campaign strategy feels awkward, as if the actors can’t find the right timing.
Not surprisingly, Moore is best when she says nothing: in a series of scenes in which Palin passive-aggressively ignores the gentle nudges of an increasingly concerned Nicolle Wallace (an excellent Sarah Paulson) and refuses to prep for the now-infamous Katie Couric interview, looking for all the world like a stubborn teenager determined to bomb an exam just to piss off her nagging parents, she’s terrifyingly good, and she makes you wish that the film had served her better. “She’s a good actress, right? Then why don’t we just give her some lines to memorize?” According to Game Change, this was the logic of the GOP campaign; they decided to feed Palin memorizable talking points in an attempt to mask her incompetence. It’s also, sadly, the logic of the filmmakers: “we’ll dress Julianne Moore up as Sarah Palin, and voila—instant Emmy! Why bother with a script?” Moore is a far better actress than Palin was in 2008, but her performance here is almost as badly managed.