HBO's "Recount" Takes on the 2000 Election

The HBO movie Recount tackles the 2000 election fiasco in Florida by combining historical news footage with a remarkable cast to create a smart political thriller. And it couldn't have come at a better time. With more and more people in an already complacent citizenry growing tired of a race that won't end until November, it's important to take a look at how George W. Bush won the White House and remember what's at stake in 2008.

Just as it is in this election year, the Oval Office was up for grabs after Clinton's second term, with the Democrats and Republicans in a dead heat. Recount starts on election night and tells the ballot battle story from the perspective of both parties. But Recount is not as purple as it wants to be. Yes, the Bush campaign's strategic ground team, led by Tom Wilkinson as James Baker III, does get the same amount of screen time as their Democratic counterparts, led by Kevin Spacey as Ron Klain (Gore's former Chief of Staff). And yes, former Secretary of State and Gore campaign adviser Warren Christopher, played by John Hurt, comes off as weak and idealistic. There's also a pretty good jab at Joe Lieberman. But can taking a jab at Lieberman even be counted as taking a swipe at the Democratic Party anymore? This is an underdog story: come-from-behind-blue vs. friends-in-high-places red, and to try and pretend that the movie is unbiased is ridiculous. It is biased. And it should be. The Democrats are fighting on the side of every-vote-counts against the Republicans' argument of time's up. This isn't a we-meet-somewhere-in-between-blue-and-red kind of issue. It's, as both Wilkinson's and Spacey's characters state, a street fight for the presidency.

Is this the way it really went down? With great quotes and dramatic moment stacked on top of dramatic moment? Certainly not. At campaign headquarters for both the Republicans and the Democrats there was probably, like in any campaign, a lot more waiting around and eating bad takeout. But director Jay Roach's approach is a lot more fun to watch. The usually dry language of voter law sizzles thanks to solid performances and excellent writing. The pacing of Recount, backed by a score that would make Hitchcock smile, turns the finer points of legal bureaucracy into both sharp drama and, at times, solid humor: "The plural of chad is chad?" Spacey quips in a conversation between Spacey's Klain and Denis Leary's Michael Whouley (Gore's Chief Field Operative).

Denis Leary does a great job of adding a little levity to Recount but the real comedy crown goes to Laura Dern's portrayal of Florida's then Secretary of State Katherine Harris. Harris, a Republican, was an easy target for talk show hosts in 2000; she seemed a bit lost at the press conferences and had an incredible love of eye shadow. But let's not forget that she abused her power by trying to shut down the recount, was the Co-Chair of Bush's election team in Florida while stating that her actions were not partisan, and is rumored to have had an affair with W's brother Governor Jeb Bush (that last little tidbit is not covered in HBO's film but given free of charge by yours truly). Laura Dern steals the show with Harris's self-important and slightly crazy personality.

All humor aside though, it is easy to get so caught up in Recount that you forget you know how it ends. The last scene is a shot of the Florida ballots, boxed and abandoned in a basement not unlike the final shot in Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. In both scenes the message is the same: the government buries what it doesn't understand. The Republicans walked away with the presidency and no one, not even the Supreme Court that made the final decision, can give a clear reason why.

Now that we know what eight years of GW in the White House looks like, the stakes seem higher than anyone in 2000 could have imagined. When viewing the movie from this perspective one could argue that the film is more of a political horror movie than a political thriller. And we should be scared. November isn't all that far away anymore. While the Democrats are taking stabs at each other the Republicans are preparing to bring the same type of fight to 2008 that they brought to Florida in 2000. HBO's Recount is an excellent film with a stellar cast and a great script. Take the time to watch it. Remember how democracy was tarnished eight years ago. Get mad. And then let's all prepare to get even.

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