Kevin Spacey toplines the ensemble cast of HBO Films' Recount, debuting tonight at 9 p.m. Eastern time on the pay cable channel. Directed by Jay Roach (Meet the Parents), the film revisits one of the most riveting and controversial moments in American history, recent or otherwise — the razor-close, disputed 2000 presidential election in Florida — and in exploring the story behind the headlines during the 36-day tactical battle to determine who would become the 43rd President of the United States, churns up beautifully bitter feelings of partisanship all over again, even by merely innocuously, and correctly, highlighting the differences in philosophy that informed the Republican and Democratic approaches to the conflict.
First, all the characters: Spacey (above right) portrays Ron Klain, former chief of staff to Vice President Al Gore. Tom Wilkinson portrays James Baker III, Bush family consigliere, and recount ring master for Dubya. Denis Leary (above left) plays Michael Whouley, national field director during the Gore campaign. Laura Dern portrays Katherine Harris, the Florida Secretary of State who never met a rouge stick she didn't like. Bob Balaban portrays Ben Ginsberg, national counsel to the Bush-Cheney campaign in the 2000 election. John Hurt plays Warren Christopher, former Secretary of State to President Bill Clinton. Bruce McGill plays Republican lobbyist Mac "the Knife" Stipanovich. Paul Jeans plays Ted Olson, who represented George Bush before the Supreme Court. And Ed Begley, Jr. portrays attorney David Boies, who represented the Gore campaign before the Supreme Court.
Culled together by screenwriter Danny Strong from several books about the crisis, with CNN's Jeffrey Toobin, ABC's Jake Tapper, Time's Mark Halperin and David Von Drehle and Newsweek's David Kaplan all additionally hired on as special consultants, the movie both benefits and suffers from its (relative) rush to the screen in time for the end of this primary season (and its doubtless rerun in the even more emotionally fraught fall). Klain is essentially Recount's featured player, which gives the movie an air-quote Democratic focal point, but in the bluntest terms there's not a left-leaning bias here (situating it from the hard-charging point-of-view of the "losers" in the contest just plainly gives it more of a dramatic punch), and in reality the film, the political narrative equivalent of an account of a palace coup glimpsed from the grimy, ground-floor servants' quarters, is more about feeling than anything else. In fact, I'd argue that this is what it even needs a bit more of, actually.
While Klain's increasing exasperation and consternation are well chronicled, there's an awful lot of ground to cover, and crucial communicative links — like Gore's explicit directions to his team, and Bush's orders to his — are lost in the fray. Small but important details (18 of 67 counties in fact conducted no initial machine recount, in direct opposition to Roberts' orders) are interspersed throughout, but easily glossed over, and the legal drumbeat of the narrative — while exacting — sacrifices some of the juicy mania that no doubt existed in each camp's hermetically sealed bubble.
Wilkinson's well-oiled Baker, previously Secretary of State to President George H. W. Bush, comes across as perhaps too smooth and stalkingly efficient by about a third; the roots of his familial allegiance are nicely highlighted in a later scene, but there's a reason Baker was chosen, along with Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton, to head up 2006's much touted (if ultimately ignored) bipartisan Iraq Study Group, and it's because he isn't driven by the same grim desire for exsiccation of political foes that drive the Karl Roves of the world.
Spacey's performance as Klain is boilerplate — good stuff, but pretty much what we've come to expect from him in anything dramatic since American Beauty, which is to say sardonic, fitfully impassioned and graced with one of those moments of shutdown sadness. Dern's portrayal of Harris, on the other hand, is thing of careening awkwardness from which you can't quite avert your eyes. It's brassy, and maybe (read: definitely) a little bit out of step with the rest of the movie, but it captures, I think, her warped sense of call to duty
Perhaps most amusing is Harris' assertion — I'm assuming based likely on sourced information from the real-life Stipanovich or Director of the Florida Division of Elections L. Clayton Roberts, whose characters are present for the conversation — that she "felt like Queen Esther," and felt that she was sacrificing herself for the Jews.
Watching Recount, as a political junkie I was immersed in its reenactments. Yet I also felt like it probably warranted an extra two hours. Heck, you could even split perspective, doing one film from both the Gore and Bush camps! That might have been just the prescription for the eight-year headache this debacle still conjures up. (HBO Films, unrated, 119 minutes)