Truth and Chads Hang In the Balance Of 'Recount'
Saturday, May 24, 2008
Things are not going well for Al Gore's team, as chronicled in the HBO film "Recount," when his longtime aide Ron Klain turns to a Democratic colleague in a bar and says: "I'm not even sure I like Al Gore."
A nice cinematic moment, and a total fabrication. Klain says -- and HBO acknowledges -- that it never happened.
The movie, which premieres tomorrow, is the latest docudrama to pledge allegiance to the facts of a historical event, but with fingers crossed. The director says he concocted certain details -- the technical term, I believe, is "making stuff up" -- in search of a larger truth.
Filmmakers love to toss around phrases such as "larger truth." But it's hard to argue that you're trafficking in nonfiction if you use people's real names -- James Baker, Warren Christopher, Katherine Harris -- and have them doing and saying things that never happened.
There's an obvious need for compression -- there were two Supreme Court hearings, not one -- in telling the tangled tale of the 36-day Florida court battle that gave the 2000 election to George W. Bush. And dialogue can't be verbatim when there's no way of knowing everything that was said in back rooms. But while dramatic license might support exaggeration, it can hardly justify some of the wholesale creation in which the movie indulges.
The makers of "Recount" tout their reliance on several books about the crisis, and hired as consultants CNN's Jeffrey Toobin, ABC's Jake Tapper, Time's Mark Halperin and David Von Drehle and Newsweek's David Kaplan.
In an interview airing tomorrow on CNN's "Reliable Sources," director Jay Roach tells me of the invented Klain dialogue: "We wanted, as with a lot of moments in the film, to capture the essence of a certain attitude in the Gore team." The movie, he said, "wasn't 100 percent accurate, but it was very true to what went on. . . . That's what dramatizations do: stitch together the big ideas with, sometimes, constructs that have to stand for a larger truth." He cites as an example "All the President's Men," in which Hal Holbrook's Deep Throat tells Robert Redford's Bob Woodward to "follow the money," although the real Throat never used those words.
Fair enough -- screenwriters have been taking such liberties forever. A film that attempts a certain fidelity to the historical record deserves praise for making the attempt, rather than using the money to make another flick about horny teenagers.
But "Recount" is being marketed as an honest re-creation of events. In a promotional interview released by the cable channel, Kevin Spacey, who plays Klain, declares: "Our sort of motto has been, get the story right, get the facts right, tell it honestly and tell the truth." Careful viewers might notice the disclaimer that the film is "based on certain facts," while some events and characters are "fictionalized for dramatic purposes." How convenient.
A film, by its nature, must have a point of view, must settle on characters around which to build the plot. But in depicting history, there's also the question of fairness. The movie portrays Baker (Tom Wilkinson), the former secretary of state leading Bush's team, as canny and ruthless, while Christopher (John Hurt), the former secretary of state heading the Gore operation, is played as a naive fool.
"I was just flabbergasted," Christopher said in an interview. "They invented a character, put my name on it and put words in my mouth that I had never spoken. . . . It's drama masquerading as history. This is how many people will perceive it, and you can never catch up with that."
Christopher, who is depicted as counseling against a court battle to force a Florida recount that could give Gore the election, reviewed a partial script provided by the New York Times. "It's absurd to say I thought it could be done through diplomacy and compromise," he told me. Christopher said he heard about the movie from his tailor -- "They went out of their way to get my suit right" -- and that by the time screenwriter Danny Strong called him, they were already shooting the scenes that involved him.