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Let it entertain you: HBO's politically charged Game Change is fair game for now (But how about a Barack/Hillary sequel?)

Ed Harris and Julianne Moore as McCain/Palin. HBO photos

Reviewing HBO's adaptation of Game Change is pretty much a losing proposition in this politically polarized election year.

Having seen only the trailer for the film, Sarah Palin is on the record -- and on Fox News Channel, of course -- with a denunciation that she says also speaks for her 2008 running mate.

"I'm not gonna go see the movie," she vows, as if it were playing at a multiplex near you rather than on home screens Saturday (8 p.m. central). "Either is the good senator, John McCain. We've discussed this and realize that Hollywood lies are Hollywood lies."

Furthermore, "their machine happens to be a very pro-leftist, pro-Barack Obama machine there at HBO that created this movie," she recently told FNC anchor Uma Pemmaraju (who previously worked at D-FW's CBS11 as an anchor-reporter).

HBO, for its part, has taken the unusual step of issuing a one-page letter in defense of Game Change, which is drawn from the McCain-Palin segments of the same-named 2010 bestseller by veteran political reporters Mark Halperin and John Heilemann.

The network says Game Change also uses material from Palin's own book, Going Rogue. And that both McCain and Palin declined to talk to the film's writer, Danny Strong, while also rejecting HBO's offer to "see the finished film."

Furthermore, "HBO has a long track record of producing fact-based dramas, going to great lengths to get the story right . . . The result is a balanced portrayal of the McCain-Palin campaign."

Neither side is going to budge. But maybe the lately embattled Rush Limbaugh is the real fall guy of Game Change. In its closing minutes, as McCain (Ed Harris) prepares to deliver his concession speech, he tells Palin (Julianne Moore) that she'll have important responsibilities as one of the Republican Party's new leaders.

"Don't get co-opted by Limbaugh and the other extremists," he warns her. "They'll destroy the party if you let them."

This is not a tack-on line tied to Limbaugh's current problems. The film was finished and screened for television critics in January, with the Limbaugh line included.

I've since watched it again. And as an entertaining, briskly paced political yarn, it's right up there with HBO's Emmy-winning Recount, a depiction of the 2000 Florida imbroglio that also was penned by Strong.

Moore emerges as a dead-on replica of Palin, even more so than Tina Fey. And although the real-life Palin can find plenty to cringe at, this is by no means an entirely unflattering portrayal.

Harris falls a bit short in the look-alike department. But if McCain decided to clandestinely watch Game Change he'd no doubt be buoyed by its treatment of both his candidacy and his moral compass. Repeated f-bombs are part of this mix. As is some G-rated compassion for both his opponent and Palin.

Still, the film's scene-stealer is Woody Harrelson, who bridges the McCain-Palin camps as senior campaign strategist Steve Schmidt. Bald, assertive and beset by the ticket's mounting problems, Schmidt is the Elmer's Glue of Game Change. And Harrelson is letter-perfect, whether barking orders, throwing up his hands or commiserating with McCain as his "Stevie boy."

Schmidt and one of Palin's principal campaign advisors, Nicolle Wallace (Sarah Paulson), have not been shy about talking up Game Change in various TV interviews. They're no doubt two of the people Palin was targeting when she told FNC's Pemmaraju that those staffers who "threw John McCain under the bus should feel some shame."

She neglected to mention that the first-person Going Rogue also details her problems with some McCain campaign staffers. It too became a bestseller.

Palin rightly can criticize HBO's one minute, 47 second trailer for Game Change, in which she's pretty much depicted as a high-maintenance moron. But a trailer does not a movie make. And the film, to its credit, also portrays Palin as a loving mother and wife whose mushrooming discombobulation on a national stage at times makes her more empathetic than hopelessly in over her head.

Game Change includes several scenes of Palin with her husband, Todd (David Barry Gray), and their children. But it never puts the family in its crosshairs by ridiculing or diminishing them as cartoon characters. Quite the contrary. It's affecting, not cynical, when mom and little Piper Palin (Taya Miller), pray together. And Sarah Palin's brief phone conversation with her only son, Track (Kevin Bigley), is underscored by her relief that he's survived another day in Iraq.

"My son is safe," she says, smiling with relief.

Detractors of Game Change, whether they've seen the film or not, have a point in noting that the book on which it's based in fact devoted more pages to the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination between Obama and Hillary Clinton. And in good conscience, HBO someday should make a film focusing on their bare-knuckled showdown. There are ample juicy details in the book, which also is devastating at times in its reporting on the failed Democratic candidacy of John Edwards.

Edwards is briefly twitted in the film via a real-life youtube clip in which he's caught combing his hair. McCain and his aides chortle in unison while aboard another campaign flight.

The movie is bookended by CNN's Anderson Cooper interviewing Harrelson's Schmidt before leaving this question hanging: "If you had to do it over again, would you have her on the ticket?"

Most of the other TV newsies are glimpsed only in archival clips, with the parade including the likes of Wolf Blitzer, Sean Hannity, Brian Williams, Pat Buchanan, Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric. The latter two had signature one-on-one interviews with Palin, both of which furnished material for Fey's sendups on Saturday Night Live.

Sarah Paulson & Woody Harrelson as Nicolle Wallace & Steve Schmidt.

Much of the principal dialogue in Game Change comes straight from the book. As when Palin says, "It's God's plan," after Schmidt tells her, "You seem totally unfazed by this."

Then comes the big surprise announcement of McCain's out-of-nowhere running mate after he initially was intent on picking Al Gore's 2000 sidekick, Joe Lieberman (Austin Pendleton), who's seen only briefly and cartoon-ishly.

"Joe's perfect," McCain reasons. "We're both Mavericks that are hated by the assholes in our own parties."

But Palin instead gets the call, while at an Alaska carnival, after Schmidt says there's no chance of beating Obama without a game-changing curve ball.

"We need to create a dynamic moment in this campaign, or we're dead," he argues.

The film convincingly recaptures the initial rush of Palin mania, capped by a bravura convention acceptance speech that has McCain exclaiming backstage, "She's incredible!" Told that her TelePrompTer broke down halfway through the speech, McCain adds ruefully that if that happens to him, "I'm (f-bombed)."

Storm clouds soon gather, with Schmidt finding Palin to be alarmingly clueless on foreign policy issues. Still, she's eager to learn.

"This is flippin' awesome," she says of a crash course in international affairs.

Still, Schmidt considers Palin to be a consummate "actress" when it counts, a "red light performer" who pretty much turns it on during the Gibson interview save for her unfortunate observation that Russia can be seen from Alaska.

Game Change can be a little too heavy-handed with its foreboding music and crinkle-cut looks of concern as Palin heads toward what Paulson's Nicolle Wallace eventually terms a "mini-meltdown." Palin also is shown as being obsessed with her current standing in Alaska, demanding that the campaign conduct a poll to determine whether she's still held in high esteem.

"Oh my god, what have we done?" says key campaign advisor Mark Salter (Jamey Sheridan), who had argued against picking Palin.

McCain likewise is vexed, profanely wondering why the media keep bashing him while saying of Palin, "That poor girl. She wasn't ready for this."

But Palin rallies after McCain makes the call to reunite her with Todd and the children at his Sedona, Arizona home. Schmidt streamlines her preparations for an important debate with Obama's running mate, Joe Biden. And the campaign once again is thrilled with her performance before Palin decides that she, not McCain, is the Republican ticket's superstar.

"If I am singlehandedly carrying this campaign, I'm gonna do what I want," she tells Schmidt before prototypically "going rogue."

McCain in turn is turned off by the increasingly ugly nature of some campaign rallies. When a woman decries Obama as an "Arab," McCain emphatically tell her that's not true.

Palin and her allies won't much like the film's closing stages, in which she's intent on making her own concession speech in tandem with McCain. Schmidt tells her in no uncertain terms that it's never been done that way, and won't be on the night when America has elected its first president of color. It's a signature scene, with Harrelson playing it to the hilt.

He later apologizes to McCain for advocating Palin.

"I'm so sorry I suggested her," Schmidt tells him on election night.

"Don't be," McCain replies. "(F-bomb) 'em. What were we supposed to do?"

McCain's Limbaugh line soon follows, leaving those who have no use for Game Change with ample ammunition that they'll gladly use.

No real-life person ever entirely agrees with the way they're portrayed on-screen in a TV or feature film "docudrama." So that's a given, and Game Change cannot even remotely hope to please everybody.

Nor can Palin claim that none of the film's unflattering moments are factual. There's just too much evidence to the contrary.

In the end, fans of well-paced political potboilers will find much to like about Game Change. As will those who simply want to be entertained by a crackling good melodrama.

Or as Harrelson's Schmidt matter-of-factly puts it in the end, "It wasn't a campaign. It was a bad reality show."

HBO now owes us a Barack-Hillary film cut from some of the same cloth.

GRADE: A-minus