'Recount': Still Too Close for Comfort

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 25, 2008

There's something especially satisfying about a can't-miss proposition that doesn't -- partly because so many hugely ballyhooed "sure things" instead land with ignominious splats. A splat is precisely what does not happen with HBO's "Recount," an electrifying slapstick tragedy about a mad moment in American politics, a moment that must never happen again but easily could.

An estimable assemblage of talents come together to revisit the bangs and whimpers that brought the 2000 presidential election to a herky-jerky, ludicrous close and installed George W. Bush rather than Al Gore in the White House. It was a flash that went by in a blur, so stupefyingly surrealistic that it seemed it couldn't really be happening. But it was, it really was, and the results still reverberate.

Placed under a figurative high-def microscope and examined studiously but at a riveting pace, "Recount" recounts in brisk and crisp docudrama style how Gore was pushed aside even after winning the national popular vote -- a defeat marked by bungling, bumbling and seemingly malicious mischief in the state of Florida. The film is a clarifying cautionary tale that concedes both that full clarification is probably impossible and that cautionary warnings could well go unheeded as early as November.

There are so many lessons to be learned, but there is so little precedent for the proverbial powers that be actually learning them.

Here was a pivotal, crucial event in the life of the country and yet, the film ruefully relates, it was handled with all the finesse and expertise of the Keystone Kops working for Barnum & Bailey. At the end, Bush honcho James Baker declares that all's well and that "the system works," and what's obviously lacking is a voice from the throng shouting out a rhetorical, "You call that working ?!"

If the mess in Florida had been resolved with as much skill and savvy as went into the making of the movie, the world might be a different place today -- presumably a better one, although no one can say for sure.

Little or nothing is ever accomplished by games of what-if, but it's hard to resist speculating how history, and not just political history, might have been different since the year 2000 with regard to such monumental events as the reaction to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11; response to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina; and the war in Iraq, including whether there would have been one and whether a single American life would have been lost.

Writer Danny Strong tells the story with enviable skill and artful urgency. He makes such a good case for the seriousness of the situation -- even though it is laced with self-satirizing farce -- that some viewers might want to ask him, "Where were you eight years ago?" The film would have had a perhaps more practical, tangible effect if done closer to the time of the imbroglio depicted.

One obvious problem with that kind of theorizing is that it's not Strong's job -- nor that of director Jay Roach (who, appropriately or not, also did the three nutty "Austin Powers" pictures) -- to write a prescription for reform or even to help fix whatever is broken. The filmmakers put the story up there on the screen, with its alternately hideous and hilarious details skillfully articulated, and they certainly cast megawatts of illuminating light, but it's up to the audience what to do with it.

The filmmakers' first-and-foremost responsibility is provocatively, meaningfully and troublingly fulfilled: Entertain the viewing audience and give it something to think about, although even just thinking about it, much less reliving it, might strike some people as simply too punishingly dismal.

The story is told not through the eyes of either Bush or Gore (barely glimpsed as portrayed by actors, but portrayed by themselves in intermingled news footage) but through those of Ron Klain, a Gore campaign worker who formerly served as the vice president's chief of staff. This was one of the filmmakers' inspired strokes, partly because Klain is depicted not as a wildly passionate Gore adorer but instead as a man caught up in a rogue wave that he then tries to navigate.

When we first meet Klain, in fact, he is chafing at what he considers an inadequate and insulting job offer that Gore, through an intermediary, has offered him. Klain considers it slim reward for years of faithful service. It's thus somehow more dramatic, and ironic, when Klain finds himself in charge of the desperate effort to get Florida votes recounted, a measure prompted by a tremendous number of irregularities in the final tally and one that he and others felt could very well put Gore in the White House.

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