A film review by Craig J. Koban
2008, no MPAA rating, TV
rating: MA, 117 mins.
2008, no MPAA rating, TV rating: MA, 117 mins.
Ron Klain: Kevin
Spacey / Warren Christopher: John
Hurt / James Baker: Tom
Wilkinson / Katherine Harris: Laura
Dern / William M. Daley: Mitch Pileggi / Michael Whouley: Denis
Premieres on HBO on May 25, 2008
Being a person that is intrigued by US Federal politics, I will be the first to say that something really irked me about the 2000 Presidential election results.
What began as a
typical political battle to assume the role of Commander and Chief by then
Vice-President, Al Gore, and then Texas Governor, George W. Bush, would
snowball into one of the single greatest election controversies in
American history. It was a
hullabaloo involving voting machines, elderly voters that could not see
properly, disenfranchised minority voters, and “chads” of every
variety I never new existed…hanging, dimpled, pregnant, etc.
is widely known, it is the electoral vote that wins US elections, not the
popular vote. Bush won the
election with more electoral votes (271 to Gore’s 266, a squeaker, to be
sure), but Gore won more popular votes, which is only the fourth time in
history that a president was elected without a plurality of votes.
of course, was not what sparked a firestorm of controversy.
At approximately 7:50p.m. EST on Election Day some networks
declared that Gore carried Florida’s 25 electoral votes based on exit
poll numbers. Yet, when
actual vote tallies started coming in, Bush was slowly beginning to take
the lead. By 10p.m. EST, most
of the networks retracted their initial predications that Gore would
become the next President. By
2:30a.m., with around 85 per cent of the Florida votes counted, Bush was in
the lead and networks now were conceding that Dubya would be the next
this time, Gore even placed a call to Bush to concede the election to
he would later retract.
would seem that remaining votes in the Gore/Democratic-centric counties
were not completely counted, which led to Gore gaining ground against
Bush, hence, eliciting his retraction of concession.
Eventually, Gore’s narrowed the margin to 2000 votes and decided
to wait for a recount before finally conceding the White House to Bush.
When the first recount occurred in Florida the margin dwindled to
500, triggering a mandatory recount in the state.
Gore later asked for hand recounts – a very tricky venture.
All of this, and much more, would lead to set of a series of events that
began a series of laborious – and problematic – recounts (some by
hand, some by machine, both heavily contested by both parties), and
inevitably materialized into lawsuits.
December 12 the Supreme Court decided that the plan for recounting ballots
was unconstitutional (many on the Supreme Court were Republican backed)
and thus ended the recounts. The vote was then ratified by Katherine Harris, the
Republican Secretary of State for Florida (who also was the Florida
co-chair of Bush’s campaign…hmmmm) and she essentially gave the
election to Bush. Even
stickier was the fact that Jeb Bush, Georgie's younger brother, was the
Governor of Florida, raising a few more easy red flags.
of this lengthy prologue helps to set up the extraordinarily evocative and
compelling docudrama/political thriller, RECOUNT, which just may be the
best reason to avoid the cinema and stay home to take in a movie (this
film is not playing theatrically, but premiered on HBO May 25).
The film, featuring a wonderful all-star cast (all in top form),
sure-fire direction, and a clever and suspenseful script makes RECOUNT
both a stunning indictment of the miscarriages of justice that occurred
during the post-2000 election, but is also is a mesmerizing tale of how both sides of
each parties gathered together legal and political guns to duke it out in
a winner-take-all fiasco.
film sets up the particulars of the election, but it ostensibly focuses
squarely on the aftermath of Election Day, during which paranoid confusion
outweighed any pretence of a clear-cut winner.
We get a sprawling story that covers a 36 day period from Election
Day through to the Supreme Court rulings that would ultimately see Bush take
the oath of office in January, 2001, much to both the joy and frustration of the two parties involved. What we get is a film of uncanny forward momentum (despite
the fact that we all know the end result, RECOUNT generates serious
tension and a rigorously quick pacing throughout), not to mention that it
gives equal screen time to both parties, as both approach dealing with
the Florida election problem with the precision and calculation of
football quarterbacks going head-to-head into the fourth quarter with the game tied.
film does a virtuoso job of mixing up newsreel footage and fictionalized
recreations, all while showing just how mind thumbing the entire process
of fixing this mammoth problem was for both sides.
Importantly, Bush and Gore are rarely seen in the film:
Oftentimes, we see fleeting glimpses of them from behind, or hear
them briefly over the phone to their campaign officials and lawyers.
That’s of critical importance to the film’s focus:
actors playing the two politicians would have distracted from the
true meat and potatoes of the film’s underlining story of the people
below them that were willing to do just about anything to see their
candidates see the Oval Office.
better is the film’s uniformly solid assemble cast, who all play
respective participants in the Democratic and Republican camps. On the
Democratic side we have Ron Klain (Kevin Spacey), a former Gore Chief of
staffer that ends up leading the charge for a fair resolution to the election
debacle. He teams up with
Gore’s Chief Field Officer, Michael Whouley (played in a great
performance of hyperactively time dialogue and lightning fast verbal zingers by
Dennis Leary). We are also
introduced to the former Secretary of State, Warren Christopher (John
Hurt), whose submissiveness with dealing with the problem acts as a
catalyst for Klain to go on the aggressive offensive.
We also get to see Democratic lawyer David Boise (Ed Begley Jr.),
who at first looks like a bumbling doofus, but he becomes a
well-articulated champion of Gore's plight that tries to recite the Democratic cause to the
we have the Republicans and they are led by former Secretary of State
James Baker (played brilliantly by Tom Wilkinson with a rough and tough
pragmatism and a go-for-broke forward drive of a military general).
Also along for the ride is the campaign’s lead counsel, Bob
Ginsberg (Bob Balaban, playing his part with a cool, underplayed, and icy
charisma) and a strong-headed lobbyist named “Mac the Knife” (Bruce
McGill) that specializes in “fixing messes”.
He primarily serves as an aid to Florida Secretary of State Harris
(Laura Dern, in one of her best performances), who seems overwhelmed by
the whole incident.
has the façade of a political thriller, but underneath that is the fierce
tale of mental combatants more akin to a war film.
James Baker and his Republicans take the opportunity of engaging in
a lot of hardball political tactics. But
the film never portrays him as a black and white villain, nor does RECOUNT
have the aura of being rabidly anti-Bush or pro-Gore.
What’s really intriguing is that the film gives each party equal
weight and shows the mindsets and convoluted strategies that both engage
in to get the upper hand on the other.
Baker, a wily old veteran, knows the ins and outs of this type of
political battle, and his tactics are not so much vile as they are, most
likely, a necessity considering the stakes.
Spacey’s Klain is equally a gripping character because of his
deeply vented pride to do what is needed to see Gore get justice.
The manner the film juxtaposes both parties’ victories and
struggles is exemplary.
the film has a more clear cut “villain role” than it would be Dern’s
Harris and the actress has a field day transforming into the Florida Secretary, perfectly
approximately her heavily made-up face, her nervous energy, and
ultimately her inflections and speech patterns.
What’s so enriching – and a bit distressing – about Harris is
that she is not so much a political player that that was willfully
conveying or dastardly, but rather was a woman that failed to have a
grasp on what was happening, he choice of actions, and even the legality
of what she was doing.
comes across as a Martha Stewart-esque empowered woman that would not let
any man sway her actions or opinions, but there are moments where Dern
crafts a portrait of Harris as persona that craves the spotlight and
yearns to be noticed…and she places a smug level of self-importance on her
own participation in the election controversy.
“Ten years ago, “ she once states, “I was teaching the chicken dance to seniors, and now I've been thrust
into a political tempest of historical dimensions."
She spends more time acknowledging how significant she was in
helping to solve the election fiasco. Most of the time, she seems
completely oblivious to how inept and oblivious she is.
This, as a result, makes RECOUNT even more distressingly
captivating: The fact that this unknowing and uninformed woman, at the end
of the day, would decide the leader of the free world makes the film cry
out with added disquieting unease.
Top kudos have to go to the
teleplay by Danny Strong, a shoe-in for an Emmy, but what’s remarkable
here is how wry, sharp-witted, and intelligently drawn he makes his
Strong does not even have a journalism background, but his gifts are
in tuning into the emotions of the real-life people involved (he interviewed more
than 40 of the participants, and studied countless books on the subject).
The end result is a humanistic politically charged film that, like
ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, has a firm grip for honing in on the characters
and interplay first and routine historical details second. Perhaps even more surprising is the resoundingly competent direction by Jay Roach, who slips into this unfamiliar genre with the
poise and confidence of a cinematic veteran.
I say “unfamiliar” seeing as Roach’s biggest claim to fame is
directing comedy farces and satires, like the MEET THE PARENTS and AUSTIN
POWERS films. RECOUNT, if
anything, shows how gifted Roach is at human drama and crafted real world
Regardless of its small screen stature and release, RECOUNT is one of 2008’s best films.
TAKING CHANCE (2009) 1/2
TEMPLE GRANDIN (2010)
THE SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP (2010) 1/2
YOU DON'T KNOW JACK (2010)
THE SUNSET LIMITED (2011)
CINEMA VERITE (2011) 1/2
TOO BIG TO FAIL (2011) 1/2
GAME CHANGE (2012)
HEMINGWAY AND GELLHORN (2012) 1/2
THE GIRL (2012)
PHIL SPECTOR (2013)
BEHIND THE CANDELABRA (2013)
CLEAR HISTORY (2013)