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HBO's Recount: A review

by Allison Waldman, posted May 26th 2008 12:24PM
RecountAfter the first 15 minutes of the HBO movie Recount, I was so upset, so filled with rage that I wondered if I wanted to watch the rest of the movie. Did I want to relive the events of November 7, 2000? Did I want to watch what happened, the craziest election fiasco in the last 25 years? I was compelled to stick with it because I had lived through it and I was dying to know what I didn't know when it unfolded in real time. I thought the HBO movie might teach me something, and, in fact, it did.

For those who don't want to know what happened in Recount, I won't reveal any spoilers until after the jump. Of course, if you don't already know how the election turned out, you've either been in a coma or are woefully out of touch. Suffice to say that Recount doesn't rewrite history. The ending is exactly as it was in 2000.

Gallery: Recount - HBO

Kevin SpaceyLaura DernRecountJohn HurtBob BalabanEd Begley Jr.Kevin SpaceyKevin SpaceyRecountRecountTom WilkinsonRecountRecountRecount

In some ways, Recount is like All The President's Men, although not nearly has epic or cinematic. Jay Roach (Meet the Fockers) is no Alan J. Pakula, but he's pretty good with Recount. What he does right is set the time and place and add suspense to a story that we all know. That's pretty good directing, and he and writer Danny Strong are to be commended. They take what could have been a tedious subject -- the counting of votes and the legal wrangling over whether to do it or not -- and made it intense and exciting.

If I have a complaint about Recount it's only this: I wanted to know what was going on in George W. Bush's head and Al Gore's head through all of this business. We hear an occasional voice on a phone, but Bush and Gore are not characters in Recount. This isn't like The Late Shift, the HBO movie about how David Letterman left NBC and Jay Leno became the host of The Tonight Show. In that film, actors playing Letterman and Leno gave us insight into their hearts and minds. We don't have that with Recount.

Minus the main men, it's left to their surrogates to step up and carry the film. That means Tom Wilkinson as James Baker, a former cabinet secretary for George Bush (President #41), to represent W., and Kevin Spacey as Ron Klain, Al Gore's former chief of staff. They're both really good.

Ironically, neither Baker nor Klain is completely enamored with their candidate -- Klain at one point admits, "You know what's really funny about all this? I'm not sure I really like Al Gore." And Baker explains that his motivation is linked to W.'s father, an old friend who turned him from a Democrat into a Republican. Those shades of gray help with the storytelling.

Still, there's no question the seconds, Denis Leary's character and Bob Balaban's, are strongly left and right, respectively. Balaban's Ben Ginsberg (and he really looks like the guy) is so anti-Dem that he says they steal elections. When Bill Dailey, the son of former Chicago Mayor Richard Dailey, is shown talking on TV, Ginsberg claims, "He's trying to steal the election for Gore like his father did for JFK."

The movie suggests that the Democrats lost the fight for the recount early on. Gore's choice to head his team is former Secretary of State Warren Christopher (played by John Hurt); he is all about diplomacy and being fair. He's a gentleman. He says, "No shame in placing country above party." Meanwhile, on the other side, James Baker declares that this is a street fight. The Republicans were determined to win; they didn't want the results changed, so they were anti-recount and every step. By the way, Christopher and Baker, two famous Americans, were played by two British actors -- with not a touch of England in their voices.

The story turns to the Florida Secretary of State, Katherine Harris, to rule on legalities, and that's when Laura Dern enters the picture -- and steals it. She's terrific. Her interpretation of Harris reveals her to be a woman ill-equipped to do the job. She's manipulated by a Republican lobbyist (the always-fun Bruce McGill) to continually put obstacles in the path of those who want the recount -- the Gore camp. My favorite Dern moment is right before she announces that the State of Florida certified the election and gave Bush the victory. She stands in the wings before going to face the media, takes a big breath like she's a singer ready to face a concert audience, plasters on a smile, and strides to the microphones. Katherine Harris sets the women's movement back 100 years, she's that inept as depicted here.

In the end, Baker and company best Klain's team. The film leans in the direction of the Gore camp -- they are the underdogs after all -- but as Baker points out about the Bush team, "We won every single recount. The system worked. No tanks on the street. Peaceful transfer of power. The strength of the constitution and the rule of law."

He says this, but in one of the strongest sequences in the film, you see the Miami-Dade canvassing board being intimidated into shutting down the hand recount by a mob that's allowed to go into the building and storm the hallway. Those protesters were orchestrated and financed by the Bush campaign. Those tactics, including turning the recount atmosphere into a circus with grown men dressed like babies, holding signs that say Gore is whining like a baby, and kids in tee-shirts that said "Gore lies," undermined the process. It was right out of the Nixon dirty tricks playbook. You don't see anything like that from the Gore side. The Gore camp is all about strategy, turning the law inside out to get the votes counted. Their cause is not to give Gore the win, but the count the votes. The Bush camp simply wants the win they think they've already won.

Spacey gives an excellent, controlled performance. No histronics here, his most moving moment occurs at the end when Gore calls him to say it's over. "Even if I win, I can't win," Gore says, and Spacey is in tears. The character blames himself for not getting every vote counted.

Even though the film lacks Gore and Bush as characters (although there is one exchange when Gore rescinds his concession), they do appear in real news clips. Also included are all the major network talking heads, and those news people and their real reports add a lot to the verisimilitude.

In the end, you're left with the same feeling that you've been hoodwinked, the public was cheated. Why wasn't every ballot counted? Why did the Supreme Court interfere in Florida's business? How can you believe that they weren't playing politics when it was so clear that this was the most important political issue of all at stake?

"Did the best man win?" that's the question Klain asks Baker near the end of the film. Neither can say for sure.

And as for the votes, in a scene that evokes Raiders of the Lost Ark, Roach shows us the boxes and boxes of ballots in a Florida warehouse. Still there, still uncounted. Who the hell really won that election after all?

Other points of interest

-- David Boies, the best appellate attorney in the land, is played by Ed Begley Jr. A brilliant lawyer, he can't scoop ice cream onto a cone without dropping the scoop onto the kitchen table.

-- In a subtle indictment, after the case is done, two of the principals from the Bush team -- Ted Olsen and Joe Allbaugh -- are shown in headlines to be appointed to the new President's staff as Solicitor General and head of FEMA. The implication is clear.

-- By cross-cutting from the Christopher lead Gore team to the Baker lead Bush team, Roach shows how the tone was set early. Christopher didn't want to get their hands dirty; Baker did.

-- At one point, Spacey's character says to Leary's, "You like to say f*ck a lot." Good inside shot at Leary -- and true!

-- Just use of the CSI-style forensics camera-work (you know, when they show a bullet going through a body) to explain how the ballots could have hanging chad (which is the plural for chad) and dimpled chad. Also how the machines could be clogged with chad so that it wouldn't register every vote.

-- Ginsberg said early on when Bush was given Florida by the networks, and they declared him the winner, "The stains of Bill Clinton will be washed away." Talk about anti-Clinton fervor.

-- Klain is established early on as having been dissed by Gore, offered a demotion to stay with the campaign once Gore was President. This set up the fact that Klain wasn't doing the recount for selfish motives; he really didn't have a reason to be as passionate as he was accept to see every vote counted.

-- How goofy was Katherine Harris? She compared her part in the proceedings to Queen Esther from the Old Testament. Esther gave herself to a King to save the Jewish people. Where was the connection except in her head?

-- When Klain gets to Palm Beach county and sees the old people -- mostly Jews -- complaining about their votes not being registered properly because of the butterfly ballot, he refers to the scene as Night of the Living Bubbies. (Bubbies is Yiddish for grandmother).

-- The exchange between Bush and Gore on the phone, shown from the backs of their heads, had a nice nastiness to it, when Bush claims his little brother -- Jeb, the governor of Florida -- said he'd won the state. Gore replies that his little brother isn't the final authority.
What should the Supreme Court have done when asked to rule on the recount?
Exactly what they did.146 (25.5%)
Stay out of it completely.133 (23.2%)
Send it back to Florida as a State issue.231 (40.3%)
Rule in a way that allowed Gore to appeal the decision.63 (11.0%)

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This bit of Republican Kool-aid went unchallenged in 2000 and in the film:
Baker: "We won every single recount. The system worked. No tanks on the street. Peaceful transfer of power. The strength of the constitution and the rule of law." Yes, but not all the recounts were allowed to conclude. Recently, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Scalia, in a CBS "60 Minutes" interview, used this exact argument -- 'Bush won all the recounts, end of story' and it went unchallenged by the interviewer.

Warren Christopher and ultimately Al Gore reasoned: 'Sometimes it's better to put country before party.' What is not ''in the country's interest'' if you count all the votes in a presidential election? Why is it not in the country's interest to fight for a fair election? I, as part of this country, do not feel my needs were served when the Democrats packed up their tents and walked away. Al Gore said 'even if we win, we can't win.' What did that mean? That he would have faced too much criticism from the Republicans, or a divided Congress? The country might have survived that a lot better than it has the administration of George W. Bush.

I saw an interview with Kevin Spacey, saying that Republicans like this movie and how they're portrayed. It sounds like they've all had a little too much Kool-Aid, which is hardly news. Nevertheless, it's still incredulous that they see this film as a justification for what the Supreme Court did to this country, subjecting it to 8 years of atrocities against its citizenry, and the rest of the world for that matter -- Mortgage/credit crisis, gasoline prices, unaffordable health insurance, thousands killed in Iraq, etc. -- so much for 'putting country first.'

May 27 2008 at 5:59 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

As I understand it, the producers of this film did not interview or consult even ONE person who was in charge of the actual recount. Instead, this film was written from hearsay and therefore a number of scenes depicted were nowhere close to what actually happened. Eyewitness accounts might have been helpful in an accurate depiction of events, don't you think? Once the line has been crossed into fiction rather than fact, it taints the film as propaganda promoting certain agendas. I believe that this film was intended to be a truthful depiction of what happened but instead it is grossly flawed and now merely an interesting, albeit fictional account of history.

The most important three words in this review? "As depicted here." That tells me everything I need to know.

May 27 2008 at 7:33 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

What is astonishing that there is no mention of the fact that 7 newspapers, including USA Today did a recount months after the debacle was over and found that Bush actually did win. No mention of that anywhere is this movie (even after it was over) that should have been called "Al Gore's rendition of the Recount".

May 26 2008 at 11:26 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

the election was stolen in duval county where 20k overvotes of african americans who circled Gore's name and wrote his name on the bottom of ballot were thrown out as overvotes never to be looked at again

my favorite part of this whole theft was republicans going on tv accusing democrats on not counting late votes from oversees military personel and at the same time republicans were going into democratic counties in FLA getting oversees military votes thrown out for being late

May 26 2008 at 11:12 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The Republicans wanted to throw away votes, the democrats wanted to create vots. It's very simple to understand, both sides were wrong. It could be argued that the republicans "started it" by purging legit voter names from the voter lists. But the democrats approved the "butterfly ballot" before the election and I simply do not agree that someone too stupid to properly vote, no matter how old and blind they are, has the right to have the "intent" of their vote counted. That's absolutely insane whether coming from republicans or democrats. And I have no doubt it would have come from republicans if that would have helped their position.

May 26 2008 at 9:40 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The reason the Supreme Court did that is because they knew the libs would just whine about something else in the election after the recount showed yet again that Al Bore lost. This way they saved a lot of taxpayer money and got the election to the same conclusion in less time. The added bonus was having to hear at least a little less whining from more needy and helpless wastes of skin.

May 26 2008 at 8:23 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The real injustice was that a Supreme Court that had
consistently ruled in favor of state rights suddenly
did an about face and ruled that the state of Florida's
supreme court could NOT order that votes be counted.

May 26 2008 at 8:16 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Rob Williams

RON KLAIN'S BIGGIST MISTAKE: "I want four....I want to add Broward and Miami Dade (in addition to Palm Beach and Volusia)...they are chalk full of democratic under votes.....if we get ahead of bush it will change the entire game....." This shows a blatant attempt to manipulate the system and leave out possible undervotes and overvotes in other, especially conservative, counties and parishes, this shows that Klain and his minions were trying to "fix" the election for Gore from the beginning and that Christopher, Gore and Daley were a part of the fix. I remember thinking at the time: "what an obvious attempt to fix the election results....what could these guys be thinking...." In my opinion, this act alone sent us down a partisan road that we have still not recovered from.
My thoughts and I dare say the thoughts of millions of conservatives at the time, were illustrated in the following scene by Margaret Tutwiler when she said "Al Gore is not interested in counting all the votes he is only interested in counting Al Gore votes".
At the end of the movie Klain says "we should've asked for a statewide recount from the beginning"
That's what all of us out here in the real world were asking ourselves, but alas the Democrats wanted a dishonest advantage so they "cherry picked" the counties to recount. When that machine recount did not go the Democrats way, they wanted a hand re-count, when the hand recount was not going their way they wanted to perform an interpretation of "dimpled chad" ballots. This left conservatives wondering: "where will this end?" Hand recounts and dimpled chad recounts are fine with conservatives but not for just Democratic counties. It's the same with absentee ballots. The Democrats wanted to count absentee ballots from Israel because they were likely to be predominately Democrat votes but they wanted to exclude absentee ballots from the U.S. Armed forces because they are likely to be Republican votes.
As for the "error in vote tabulation", there's an old saying in the world of calculating machines: garbage in equals garbage out. In other words, erroneous data can taint good data. Neither the hardware nor the software broke down. The errors were in the data. The machines counted the good data correctly, but the bad data properly got kicked out by the machine. Thus hand recount was NOT required; additionally, hand recounts DO lead to inaccuracies. Interpreting a voter's intent of a dimpled chad could indicate that the voter had a change of mind or that the voter had an incomplete decision. Ask yourself if you can do simple addition over and over millions of times better that a machine.
According to the Washington Post "In all likelihood, George W. Bush still would have won Florida and the presidency last year if either of two limited recounts -- one requested by Al Gore, the other ordered by the Florida Supreme Court -- had been completed, according to a study commissioned by The Washington Post and other news organizations."
Monday, November 12, 2001; Page A01

May 26 2008 at 7:23 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
mike m

you're entitled to your opinion, but I lived in FL longer than 11 years prior to moving, and i don't think it's a joke.

your reply is not based on any real fact, but either way, i'm not here to get into a political debate with you.

but just so you know, your argument(series of premises in the last paragraph) is both a logical fallacy, and quite amusing.

May 26 2008 at 5:30 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

"It was right out of the Nixon dirty tricks playbook. You don't see anything like that from the Gore side."

Nonsense. Did you see the scene where they summoned Donna Brazile to get Jesse Jackson on one of the issues in a heavily-Democratic county? They summoned out their minions just like the GOP did. To the movie's credit, they showed that. To your discredit, you ignored it.

And the Dems weren't interested in "counting every vote". They only wanted to count votes in counties where they had an advantage (as the movie showed) and they wanted to exclude votes that didn't favor them (military votes).

Both sides acted despicably, but it makes you realize why we are in such a mess now. Each party has professional operatives who are dug in, heavily-moneyed, and are ready to lie/cheat/steal to get what they want. We -- the voters -- are just pawns in their game.

May 26 2008 at 5:12 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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