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Recount / *** (TVMA)Posted Sunday, June 1, 2008, at 7:43 PM
Laura Dern plays Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris in the new HBO film "Recount" about the contested 2000 presidential election.
Films about politics can be difficult to discuss. A critic tries to talk about the film in terms of how it works as art, but all most people see are the politics. Of course, most films are political in some sense, but when they aren't centered on politics, any messages gleaned by the critic are seen as insight. When the film is explicitly political, however, any commentary or criticism is just seen as political bias.
HBO's new film "Recount" about the contested 2000 presidential election results in Florida is biased, as just about any story must be to be effectively told. Reflecting the liberal leanings of Hollywood, the Democrats are nobly trying to do the right thing, however clumsily, while the evil Republicans are willing to sell the American people with whatever sleazeball, used-car-salesman technique they can conjure up. It is not for me to say whether this depiction of what went down in the 2000 election is accurate or not. But the truly important thing to remember about that historic election is that our voting process broke down in a frightening way, revealing a system of fraudulent activity within our democratic process upon which our fundamental freedoms are based. It is the people of this country that elect our president and, in order for that to be true, every person must be allowed the same opportunities as any other person to express their opinion in that matter. That did not happen in the 2000 election, and we should all be ashamed.
"Recount" methodically reconstructs the events of that fateful month and a half from the initial back-peddling of the network news coverage that initially gave Gore the win in Florida, then declared Bush the victor, then retracted all predictions until the Supreme Court awarded their backhanded decision in mid-December stating that while the Florida ballot recount was justified, without the time to finish before the deadline, it would have to be abandoned. One thing a film like this can do is bring to light facts the public may not have been aware of. I was surprised to learn the court's ruling contained a clause that stated their judgment was only for the "isolated" event of that particular election. At the time and to the Gore legal team, this must have seemed like some sort of copout of responsibility from the court--and it may well have been--but I believe it also means that in the future, the 2000 election cannot be used as some sort of legal precedent.
In director Jay Roach's ("Meet the Parents") and screenwriter Danny Strong's efforts to tell the entire story, they have presented a pastiche of real-life political characters who had their hands in the process. The cast is large and covers everyone from Gore's original legal team leaders of Warren Christopher (John Hurt, "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull") and William Daley (Mitch Pileggi, "The X-Files") to the people running the recount process in Florida. The cast includes American cinema and television luminaries, Bush and Gore impersonators, and a great deal of archival footage to lend legitimacy to the staging. Denis Leary (FX's "Rescue Me") gives a particularly impassioned supporting performance as political strategist Michael Whouley.
However, the film focuses primarily on three major players: Gore's general counsel and former chief of staff Ron Klain, Bush's chief legal advisor James Baker, and Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris. Kevin Spacey ("Superman Returns") provides a strong anchor as Klain, who, like many Americans, doesn't even know if he likes Gore. Despite the depiction of the Republican tactics to impede the recount process, Baker is portrayed by Tom Wilkinson ("Michael Clayton") as a man with conviction and respect. He condones the actions of those below him as an inherent part of the political process, but there is a sense that he accepts the process no matter the outcome as part of the American will and way. But then that is an easy stance for the winner of the spoils.
Laura Dern ("Inland Empire") provides the pivotal performance as Harris. Hers is the role most critical of the person being portrayed, depicting Harris as a puppet who is more interested in basking in the spotlight than in making any stance of her own. Much is made of her statements that only the occurrence of a natural disaster, "such as a hurricane," could allow for a legal recount of ballots under Florida law. She's found her loophole and she's sticking to it. It is noteworthy that both in entertainment and in politics, women's equality has finally come far enough to allow for flaws and blame to be placed on them.
While "Recount" is an entertainment, the mere fact that a film depicting these events had to be made is a frustration. It is disappointing that in today's media climate we have to be reminded that such a travesty has befallen our democratic process so recently. But it seems that many Americans have forgotten what happened to our democratic foundation in 2000. It is also disheartening to consider that the media is able to spin the political climate so easily. The 2000 election may not have developed the way it did without the news media's over eagerness to predict a winner so early in the voting process, and their approach to predicting elections has changed little since 2000. As this film depicts, everything that followed was an attempt from each side to keep the media spun in their favor. Even this very film is presented with such bias that what it has to say can't be trusted as accurate.
"Recount" is valuable, however, in that it draws our attention back to an important turning point in American history. Since the 2000 election, the list of events of which Americans can be ashamed has grown exponentially: the occupation of Iraq, the absence of WMDs, the state of our health care system, the growing and unaddressed issues of the environment, the Katrina response, rising fuel prices in light of record profits within the oil industry, the placement of greater importance on celebrity gossip above actual news in our media. It is as if taking the election process out of the hands of the people and placing it into the legal system started off a chain reaction of sorts that lead to a breakdown in life as we knew it. Is it possible America is broken? While many of these issues existed long before the 2000 election, they didn't really set their roots until we as a nation embraced apathy in the wake of our democratic collapse. Perhaps we are all still in shock over those events. Like Ron Klain at the end of this movie, we are stuck asking ourselves, who really did win that election?
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"Recount" is currently playing on HBO.
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Andrew is a professionally trained actor and stage director. He was a reporter for the daily newspaper The Marshall Democrat News. He has been critiquing film since Mr. Lucas released the first of his "Star Wars" prequels in 1999. His reviews can also be seen at his blog site.