By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
Klain, who liked the film overall, said: "Secretary Christopher comes across as kind of naive and out of touch, and he wasn't. It makes Christopher look like an idiot, and he wasn't. It's just not right."
Klain and Baker were among those given a chance to review the script and request changes, some of which were accepted. Christopher was not. Baker, by contrast, was so pleased with the product that he is hosting a screening next week at his public policy institute in Houston.
Tapper, one of the consultants, says the film is "a fictional version of what happened" and "tilts to the left because it's generally told from the point of view of the Democrats." But, he says, while some scenes and language are manufactured, "a lot of dialogue is not invented, a lot of dialogue is taken from my book, other books and real life."
Similar issues surfaced in the widely praised HBO series "John Adams," where the screenwriters didn't have the luxury of interviewing the principals. There was a wonderful moment when Adams, having just learned that he has won the presidency in 1796, passes George Washington, who says: "I am fairly out and you are fairly in. See which of us will be the happiest!" Upon further examination, it turns out Adams had written his wife, Abigail, that he imagined Washington was thinking that.
That was just a minor example. The screenwriter, Kirk Ellis, in a New Republic article, recalls a scene in which Vice President Adams is shown breaking a Senate tie over ratification of the Jay Treaty with Britain. In reality, the treaty passed by a two-thirds majority, so Adams had no role. Adams did cast many tie-breaking votes, Ellis says, but "in retrospect, the scene now seems too much of a stretch, the one example of 'manufactured drama' in the miniseries."
It seems fair for Ellis to ponder how often John and Abigail should hop into bed based on the sexual innuendo in their letters. But, he admits, "some of the signature speeches in the show -- notably Adams's oration for independence -- are largely invented." Ellis's rationale: "The line between 'history' and 'drama' is a fine one."
Adams and company aren't around to complain, but Bill Clinton and members of his administration went ballistic in 2006 as ABC was moving to air "The Path to 9/11." ABC kept insisting that the film, which portrayed the Clintonites as soft on terror, was based on the work of the 9/11 Commission. But there was, for instance, a scene in which then-national security adviser Sandy Berger vetoed a CIA request to launch a raid in Afghanistan to capture Osama bin Laden. ("Do we have clearance to load the package?" the CIA man supposedly asks in a message to Washington.) Berger says nothing like that ever happened.
The explanations were familiar. While ABC admitted there were "composite characters" and "fictional scenes," Executive Producer Marc Platt maintained that "we've portrayed the essence of the truth of these events." There's that elusive "essence" again. Under mounting Democratic pressure, including letters to parent company Walt Disney, ABC cut some of the disputed Berger scene and others, along with a note saying the film was "based on the
9/11 Commission report."
It was the Republicans' turn to cry foul in 2003, when CBS was ready to broadcast "The Reagans." The miniseries depicted the former president blithely shrugging off the AIDS crisis by saying, "They that live in sin shall die in sin," despite the lack of evidence that he ever said any such thing. GOP Chairman Ed Gillespie, now White House counselor, demanded the film be reviewed for accuracy in a letter to CBS Chairman Les Moonves. Emotions ran particularly high at the time because Reagan was in the latter stages of Alzheimer's disease, which would claim his life months later.
Although CBS had approved the script, the network ultimately pulled the movie, saying, "We believe it does not present a balanced portrayal of the Reagans," and relegated an edited version -- minus the AIDS line -- to its pay-cable channel, Showtime.
From Adams to Bush v. Gore, filmmaking teams have tried to have it both ways: harnessing the power of history while fudging and fiddling with the details for cinematic impact. Talented filmmakers can do what the best novelists and dramatists have always done -- create art that captures the human condition. But if they want to be seen as serious chroniclers of great political battles, they may want to worry less about "larger truths" and more about the old-fashioned variety.