Julianne Moore portrays Sarah Palin and Ed Harris portrays Arizona Sen. John McCain in a scene from "Game Change." (AP)
Washington, DC (USA Today) -- The book Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime raced to the top of best-seller lists in 2010 because it provided behind-the-scenes details of the compelling 2008 presidential election.
The film Game Change, which debuts on HBO Saturday at 9 p.m. ET, covers only half the story.
Not Barack Obama's election as the nation's first African-American president; instead, Game Change zeroes in on how little-known Sarah Palin, governor of Alaska for less than two years, became John McCain's running mate and zoomed into the stratosphere of political celebrity.
"I just thought it was by far the most compelling story in that book," director Jay Roach says.
McCain's last-minute decision to tap Palin offered a tight story within a short time frame, less than 60 days from the announcement to Election Day. Screenwriter Danny Strong calls it "one of the most amazing political stories of our time."
Palin supporters see a different motive for devoting the movie to McCain and Palin: Hollywood's antipathy to Republicans.
On the website for Palin's PAC, seven supporters of the Alaska governor describe Game Change as "historical fiction" and "a series of scenes where the dialogue, locations and participants are invented or rendered unrecognizable for dramatic effect." One of the signers is foreign policy adviser Randy Scheunemann, who is portrayed in the film.
McCain, played by Ed Harris, has said he won't watch Game Change, telling the Fox News talk radio show Kilmeade and Friends it is "based on a book that's totally unfair and untrue, especially to Sarah Palin. ... She's a good and decent person, and this continuing maligning of her by the liberal left is reprehensible to me."
To be sure, there are some cringe-worthy moments in the film for Palin fans.
As played by Julianne Moore, Palin did not know why there are two Koreas or what the Federal Reserve System is. She nearly had a nervous breakdown. On Election Night, she tried to seize center stage from McCain before his concession speech.
The negative news coverage that accompanied her candidacy is featured, from her pregnant teenage daughter to the disastrous interview with Katie Couric.
But Palin is also shown reviving a moribund McCain campaign after her well-received convention speech. Her family is portrayed as loving and close-knit. Game Change showcases Palin's exceptional political skills and her ability to reach voters who feel locked out of the political system.
Before Game Change, Roach and Strong worked together on Recount (2008), another HBO production, about the 2000 post-election battle of Florida between lawyers for George W. Bush and Al Gore.
The director and the screenwriter say they are political junkies interested in how decisions are made behind closed doors. They say they want to tell stories, not promote political agendas.
"I don't think anybody is going to change parties or switch their votes because of the film," Strong says.
Game Change has three main characters: Palin, McCain and Steve Schmidt, the campaign strategist who pushed Palin for running mate as a way to compete with the charismatic Obama.
Played by Woody Harrelson, Schmidt supplies the film's title, telling McCain in an early scene he needs a "game changing pick" for veep. Schmidt's character spends the rest of the movie wrestling with the consequences of that decision.
In a phone interview, the real-life Schmidt said watching Harrelson in Game Change was like an "out-of-body experience." Schmidt, who cooperated in the project, vouched for the film's accuracy and called the story "an instance in which the ambition to win superseded judgment."
"There are a lot of important lessons to be learned," Schmidt said. "I regret playing a part in a process that yielded someone on the ticket who was not prepared to be president."