Recount, debuting tonight on HBO at 9 p.m. EDT, is the sort of movie that might have been mounted by a studio with hopes of Oscar success twenty years ago. Dole out juicy roles to a mostly all-star cast, toss a middlebrow director (Sydney Pollack might have done the trick in 1988) into the mix, let the generally excellent script carry the weight, and you might have had something. Laced with dark humor and somehow making what amounts to a long chess game dramatically compelling, Recount is probably the best made-for-TV movie of the year, a distinction which would carry more weight if a) the various networks made more made-for-TV movies and b) it hadn’t arrived at such a fortuitous moment, six days before the Democratic National Committee’s Rules and Bylaws panel meets to decide what to do about Florida in yet ANOTHER election-related brouhaha. In another 20 years, Recount probably won’t play as persuasively as it does right now, in this moment, when it largely stirs up feelings long dormant in an electorate that desires, at some primal level, a do-over. Largely unable to take the long view because of when it was made, Recount is definitely a chronicle of its time and place, but it can’t find anything larger to say about the political process than, “Wasn’t it sad that Al Gore lost and we had to put up with this?”
Recount really works best as a “bet you forgot about/didn’t know about THIS!” style docudrama. If you mostly resolved to forget everything about the Florida recount during the 2000 presidential election and/or weren’t politically cognizant at that time, the film is a pretty great dissection of what went wrong when and where and how the ineffectualness of Vice President Al Gore’s camp and various strategic errors on their part left a bus-sized hole the far more competent Texas Governor George W. Bush camp drove right through. The film, especially, manages to neatly summarize most of the talking points that still-outraged Democrats continue to yell about in DailyKos comment threads, from the disenfranchisement of non-felon black voters to the badly designed (by a Democrat, no less) butterfly ballot, to the outright strange behavior of the U.S. Supreme Court that ended the whole fiasco.
The film doesn’t dwell on any of these points too heavily, but it does manage to fit almost all of them into its just-under-two-hour running time. More importantly, the film never gets down in the dirt with the conspiracy theorists, and shows that, outside of the Supreme Court oddness, nothing here was an out-and-out breach of election protocol. Dirty politics? Sure. Suspect practices? Absolutely. And while everything bad here involves stretching the law to its absolute breaking point, there’s really nothing the Gore team can do about it (as in a nice moment when a staffer realizes that the only thing that can be done about the disenfranchised black voters is to figure out a way to keep it from happening in the next election). To that end, it seems as if the film might turn into a story about a plucky band of outsiders going up against a system that’s stacked against them, but it never quite manages that transition, perhaps because it’s trying so hard to be non-partisan while remaining quite partisan at the same time.
The Gore team, at first, seems to be playing to meet some higher ideal, while it’s obvious from the first that the Bush team is just playing to win. James Baker (portrayed by a nicely subdued Tom Wilkinson), the Bush point man in the recount effort, gets the most sympathetic portrayal of any Republican in the film, and it would be hard for even the staunchest Democrat to not admire the way Baker lays out exactly how everything’s going to play out within a few hours of the start of the recount process—he’s seeing four or five moves ahead, while the Gore team finds itself squandering political momentum to play catch-up. The hero of the piece, then, becomes Gore legal consul Ron Klain (an excellent Kevin Spacey), who is one of the few in the Gore camp to want to fight back against the increasingly hysterical Republican rhetoric (encapsulated by a scene where a GOP strategist lets a bunch of costumed protesters out of an RV to add to the chaos), but is also the guy who spearheads the tactical error of asking for a hand recount of only four Democratic-friendly counties instead of the whole state. The film makes two fairly persuasive arguments that this was a) done in the interest of efficiency (and not political expediency) and b) what cost the Gore camp all of its momentum and led to the loss. Spacey’s performance is the best in the film, and with it, he does penance for every overwrought piece of sap he unleashed on an unsuspecting populace post-American Beauty. Surprisingly unmannered, he sketches a portrait of a man fighting for something he’s not sure he believes in, but knows to be better than the alternative and growing more entrenched and desperate by the day. Spacey earns the heartbreak he projects in the film’s moving final scenes, and he holds large portions of the piece together, especially when data points are whizzing by at lightning speed.
The other performances in Recount are also quite fine, from Wilkinson’s dour genius to John Hurt’s work as the perhaps too-big-picture Warren Christopher to Ed Begley Jr.’s almost slapsticky turn as Gore attorney David Boies. The one performance that doesn’t quite work is Laura Dern’s as Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, a figure mocked and demonized during the time of the recount, who often seemed to be a pawn in a much larger game who didn’t quite realize that she even WAS a pawn. Dern gives an almost impeccable impersonation of Harris, down to the quavering voice and goofy mannerisms, but she never quite finds the character’s human center. In Dern’s interpretation, Harris is all monster, no person.
In publicity for the film, HBO and the creative personnel behind Recount have made a lot of noise about how non-partisan they were in the construction of the film. This mostly proves to be untrue. Though the Republicans outside of Harris aren’t seen as irredeemable, the film’s heart is obviously with the Democrats throughout the long contest. Some of the earliest suspense scenes involve tracking down Gore to make sure he doesn’t concede before the Florida numbers are final, and the film throughout weighs heavily with the Democrats. Dramatically speaking, this was probably the right choice. It’s far more interesting to watch the story of those plucky outsiders taking on a state with bad election law and a corrupt system (what with Bush’s brother as the governor and Harris playing a pivotal role in Bush’s operation in-state) than it would be to watch the story of a better-organized campaign outplay its rivals at every turn, fostering discontent among operatives tired of the Clinton ’90s (the film largely stays away from notions that the Republicans, burned by eight years of Democratic rule, just wanted it more, except as subtext, particularly when chronicling the so-called Brooks Bros. revolt).
Since George W. Bush has proved phenomenally unpopular, this probably isn’t all that risky of a bet, but the film falters both because it aims to use the audience’s foreknowledge of what’s about to come to create a lot of its tension and because it rarely stays true to its own point of view, trying too hard to stay nonpartisan at various junctures, when it might have been nice to feel Team Gore’s despair more acutely. In addition, by far the most unusual part of the whole story was when the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in and issued a ruling to stay the recount, then issued another ruling saying that the recount could not continue because a deadline (which the court had prevented the state from reaching itself) had been reached, effectively handing the presidency to Bush. The behavior of the court has been the most discussed aspect of the case, and Recount largely avoids the issue, perhaps in fear of politicizing the U.S.’s most traditionally non-politicized body. In other words, at just the moment when the film’s partisan streak would have been most welcome (and might have made for the best dramatic climax), it loses its nerve. That said, a fictional scene that serves as an epilogue (when Baker and Klain meet on an airport tarmac) does provide a nicely muted coda to the whole thing, without demonizing one side or compromising the film’s point-of-view.
The biggest problem with Recount, though, is that director Jay Roach is mostly there to play traffic cop for a great, densely detailed script by Danny Strong. Strong’s script probably already had a whiff of “And then this happened! And then this happened!”, but Roach’s direction (save for a terrific final shot that recalls Raiders of the Lost Ark, of all things, and manages to almost encapsulate the entire film preceding it) mostly gets out of the way of the script. Roach coaxes fine performances from his actors, but you always get the sense that he’s slightly frightened to really sink his teeth into the more partisan material, to really have a go of making a film about the desperation of a team of basically good people outmaneuvered at every turn, even as the state of the world today makes it hard for the audience to not get that sinking feeling in its stomach.
And that’s where Roach’s competent but never brilliant direction falls down the most. The film is simply too reliant on you bringing your own conclusions about George W. Bush and his presidency to the table. If you think the man was an outright failure (approval rating polls seems to suggest a vast majority of Americans do), the film will likely play as a queasily comedic thriller, as it’s meant to. But in 2028, after the presidency of George W. Bush is a long-distant memory and long after anyone has any idea what the DNC’s rules meeting was even about and how Florida was involved, it probably won’t play on any level other than docudrama. In that imagined future, where time has healed some wounds, Recount will, blessedly, be only a curio. Those looking for a highly-praised movie will likely find it was so highly-praised simply because of the moment in history when it arrived.
House contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark.