Though it comes to us from the director of Meet the Fockers and Austin Powers in Goldmember, HBO’s Recount is meant to be taken seriously—not just as drama but as a reliable and expansive behind-the-scenes look at the debacle of the Florida presidential vote recount. But the film is already a lost cause from its opening scene, during which an old woman wearing a Star of David necklace walks into a polling station and appears stricken by either IBS or Alzheimer’s after accidentally screwing up her butterfly ballot. You expect Jerry Lewis to pop up behind her and scream, “Hey, Lady!”—but this is not that kind of movie. Would that it was.
Though depressing as a reminder of how George W. Bush’s presidency was won by the concerted efforts of numerous Republican interests more or less working independently of each other, it’s also a screechy example of liberal Hollywood condescension. Not surprisingly, the people depicted in the film are displeased by how they’ve been portrayed, most notably two former Secretaries of State: James Baker (played by the reliable hambone Tom Wilkinson as if he were the host of a Southern pig roast) and Warren Christopher (John Hurt, oft-repeating how the world is looking at the country during this decisive moment but acting as if he’s misplaced the directions to the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull). You can’t blame them—the film’s flair for exaggeration is as flabbergasting as it is embarrassing.
The puppets from Genesis’s “Land of Confusion” video give more multifaceted performances than Wilkinson, Laura Dern (as Katherine Harris) or Ed Begley Jr. (David Boies), all saddled with characters that seem to have been struck from either black or white molds (as a shrill signpost of his goodness, Begley’s character is seen lapping up vanilla ice cream throughout). There’s no middle ground here: Republicans are snakes or lemmings and Democrats are all do-gooders, and though this may not be too far from the truth, the film is too lopsided—therefore unimaginative—to suggest that while a snake may behave like a snake, it may not recognize itself as one. Only Bob Balaban seems to comprehend this nuance, and as such brings a generous measure of humanity to Patton Boggs lobbyist Ben Ginsberg.
No stranger to playing martyrs, Kevin Spacey cake-walks his way through the role of Democratic Party insider and Al Gore counselor Ron Klain, a less colorful Charlie Wilson-type who similarly stands for good but is no match for the insidious forces circling around him. And though Recount is artless and not much worse than Charlie Wilson’s War, Mike Nichols’s film at least understood itself as a caricature, whereas Recount behaves as if it were the real deal. Only interested in scoring cheap shots, Recount tells us that conservatives are bullies on a very fundamental level, but it’s most effective at conveying the sense that Hollywood liberals are only interested in making movies that showcase how right they are—or, in this case, were. And though they were, that’s no excuse for this movie’s wholesale smugness.