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.
Kevin Spacey -- just one member of an unusually prominent and impressive cast -- plays Klain as a man with nuances and complexities that wouldn't be there if Klain had simply been the undoubting true believer, an update of, say, the idealistic congressman James Stewart played in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." Actually, the kind of hard-edged operative that Spacey plays has been a character in several politically themed movies of much more recent vintage, but Spacey brings something new and distinctive to what might have been a stereotype.
Prepare yourself for a torrent of wickedly good performances: the casually astonishing Tom Wilkinson as James Baker III, leader of the Bush brigade; Ed Begley Jr. as wily Gore lawyer David Boies; John Hurt as excessively stately Gore ally Warren Christopher; Bob Balaban as pious Bush worker Ben Ginsberg; and, spectacularly, Laura Dern as Katherine Harris, the ill-equipped Florida secretary of state thrust to the forefront of history, empowered beyond her wildest dreams and way, way beyond her competence.
The casting is impeccable, and the makeup masterfully done, right down to the smallest of the dozens of roles. It's a minor but distinct pleasure to discover, as Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, the veteran TV character actor William Schallert. He looks more like a justice than most of the current justices do.
"Recount" is also an exercise in a perverse kind of nostalgia. Exhumed from memory are such terms and phrases as "chad" (the plural of which, we are told, is "chad"), dimpled chad, hanging chad, hand counts and machine counts, and a notorious "purge list" of convicted felons who were to be turned away from the polls as ineligible to vote -- a provision that scandalously extended even to those who merely had names similar to the ex-cons, especially, it appears, if they were members of an ethnic minority likely to vote for Gore.
We hear again Bush on the phone with Gore at the moment Gore decided, suddenly, not to concede the election after all, and Gore childishly telling Bush not to "get snippy about it." In this scene, Bush is played by look-alike Brent Mendenhall, but usually when we see Bush, it's the real Bush in video from the archive of CNN or some other news organization. As Gore, Grady Couch is seen mainly from the back, especially in an overdone scene in which a limping aide follows him down a hallway, feebly shouting important news.
The movie is not framed as the story of the noble, virtuous Gore forces being undone by corrupt Bushniks. Gore and his team made their share of mistakes both major and minor; in the former category, naming Warren Christopher to head up their campaign for a recount. Christopher is pretentiously determined to take the high road ("Chaos will not help our cause") and to view the struggle in grandly historical terms, even as Baker is rolling up his sleeves and getting ready for a fight that he knows could get down and dirty.
In an instance of stark contrast, Roach cuts from Baker telling his staff, "I want to file a lawsuit . . . as quickly as possible" to Christopher saying with bizarre finality, "Absolutely no lawsuit" would be filed by the Gore side. It was like a heavyweight champion doing battle with a devout pacifist.
Fortunately for Gore and the film, Christopher's stepping aside clears the way for Klain to take over. The job is full of maddening frustrations; for every little victory, there is an equal-size, or larger, defeat. The twists, turns, setbacks and windfalls become almost comically unceasing, and there's an irony around every corner, as when Ginsberg, portrayed by Balaban as absurdly sanctimonious, anticipates a Bush victory: "The stains of Bill Clinton will be washed away," he says, "and honor and dignity will be restored to the White House."
Right. If any old stains were washed away, there would be plenty of new stains to replace them.
Dern has one of the best roles of her career as Harris, who seemed so preposterous in her TV appearances at the time that Dern's task is really to show as much restraint as possible -- to play Harris, who wallowed in the spotlight more than any contestant ever on "American Idol," more credibly than Harris did. Even Baker, rooting for the blatantly pro-Bush Harris, moans, "This woman is hopeless."
The lesser details are important, too, in bringing the era back; amid all the cynicism and cunning, it's somehow warmly reassuring to see Dan Rather in his anchor chair again and using such Ratherisms as "crackling like a hickory fire" and "madder than a rained-on rooster." Some things are, almost amazingly, better now than they were then.
The authenticity of the film may not be beyond reproach, but its version of events certainly deserves the benefit of a doubt, especially considering the impeccability of consultants who vetted the script -- among them Jeffrey Toobin, author of "Too Close to Call," and David Von Drehle, Time editor at large, who wrote "Deadlock: The Inside Story of America's Closest Election." Of course, one has to allow for the possibility that HBO hired these and other authors as consultants so it wouldn't have to shell out larger amounts to buy the rights to their books. But that would almost be looking this gift horse in the mouth, and as gift horses go, this one's in a league with Big Brown.
And yet. Although "Recount" is a smashing success on almost every level, it's also a brutally disheartening experience for the story it tells. It's history with a vengeance, tumbling out at you in a way that demands attention, no matter how badly you may want to withhold it -- a trip down a Memory Lane full of potholes, roadblocks, fender benders and dreadful, bloody crashes.
Recount (two hours) premieres tonight at 9 on HBO.