They asked for too little. If the people in Al Gore’s corner had requested a statewide recount in Florida after the 2000 presidential election, Gore may well have won. As it is, Team Gore only asked for a recount of four counties, and the process took so long — stopped at various points by court orders, and delayed by Republican operatives objecting to any Gore-favoring ballot they could — the clock finally ran out. The rest is history; infamy, some would say.

The new HBO docudrama Recount digs into the machinations on both sides of the conflict, the strategies that worked or didn’t, the small victories and large defeats, the fortunes rolling in and out like the tide. The movie — which could’ve been Sydney Pollack’s swan song as a director, except that he was too ill at the time (he stayed on as an executive producer, and passed away literally the day after the movie premiered on HBO) — is the work of two people not generally known for political drama: director Jay Roach (of the Austin Powers and Meet the Parents/Fockers films) and writer Danny Strong (best known for playing Jonathan, one of the Nerds of Doom on Buffy the Vampire Slayer). What these former laugh-makers have wrought is a fleet-footed, conversational study of potentially very dry material well-covered by the media of the day (hanging chads! Jews for Buchanan! Brings it all back, doesn’t it, whether you want it back or not).

Kevin Spacey, who stars as Gore operative Ron Klain, has said in interviews that Recount “plays like a thriller,” and that’s about right. Early on, after Team Gore bulldog Michael Whouley (Denis Leary, typically acerbic) discovers that the numbers might be leaning in Gore’s favor, it becomes crucial to stop Gore — who has already called George W. Bush to concede — before he goes to make the official concession speech. The episode is staged as a near-parody of the clichéd thriller climax in which someone with a bomb must be halted before reaching Yankee Stadium during the World Series. The one person who could be reached at the time, Gore aide David Morehouse, had to chase Gore down, limping on a hurt knee, and finally physically block him from entering the plaza. Great material, and it actually happened.

Make no mistake: Recount is a partisan movie, with noble (if sometimes suicidally noble) Democrats and corrupt Republicans. The participants in the infamous “Brooks Brothers riot” which successfully shut down the Miami-Dade recount are portrayed as barking thugs (some of them were later rewarded with primo gigs in Bush’s White House). So the movie isn’t “fair and balanced,” but then neither was the election. The villain of the piece is clearly Katherine Harris (Laura Dern), Florida’s Secretary of State (and co-chair of Bush’s Florida campaign), who in the name of “the rule of law” did her best to block the recount. Playing this woman who said (in 2006) that “if you’re not electing Christians then in essence you are going to legislate sin,” Dern turns in a performance as darkly complex as anything she’s done for David Lynch. Her Katherine just wants to be liked; when reporters fire skeptical questions at her, she’s crestfallen.

The movie comes down to a battle between two princes with their armies of assistants and gofers. On the Republican side is James Baker (Tom Wilkinson), who has played this game longer, and knows when to punch and when to stand still and make the other guy look bad for punching back. Baker, we learn in one of the film’s few nods to Republican humanity, was a Democrat for decades before a certain prominent GOP member took him under his wing during a rough spell in Baker’s personal life. The cronyism, the essential corruption of all politics and its roots in emotion and loyalty rather than reason, snap into focus. When the U.S. Supreme Court weighs in with their verdict, the film identifies each judge and the administration that appointed him or her. (Indeed, the film is so packed with players that people are still being introduced with onscreen titles a full ninety minutes in.)

More entertaining than it should be, given the stakes involved and the consequences thereafter, Recount takes liberals back to the brief period when it seemed that their man might actually go the distance, and takes conservatives back to the day when their man, freshly minted and with his wretched failures still in the future, could say in his acceptance speech, “I was not elected to serve one party, but to serve one nation….Whether you voted for me or not, I will do my best to serve your interests and I will work to earn your respect.” Now that the great uniter has sunk not only his nation but very possibly his party, I wonder if James Baker and his team regret fighting so hard to enthrone him.

Explore posts in the same categories: biopic, drama, one of the year's best

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