RECOUNT A Movie Review
RECOUNT is an HBO movie about the 2000 election. Kevin Spacey stars as the Gore lawyer who becomes a key player in the recount fight. It’s a compelling movie in so many ways, but it’s too often dishonest about the actual events. If you didn’t know the history well you’d be certain that Gore had an idealist staff trying to do the right thing while Republicans had a ruthless machine set to fix it for Bush. That theme is summed up with a meeting between Warren Christopher (John Hurt) and James Baker (Tom Wilkinson). Hurt expects that they are going to negotiate the details of the recount. Baker says that there is no negotiation. If Bush wins the recount the election is over. Christopher says ok and the meeting ends. Christopher is treated as an idealist only interested in how America looks while Baker wants to win.
The Gore team decision to mine for votes in predominantly Democrat counties is not treated as the least bit opportunist and when a Republican on TV suggests it, the movie treats it as just another talking point and of no substance. Spacey and Leary sit in a bar late in the film and Spacey delivers the big line that sums of the theme. “I want to know who won this election, who won it?” But in the action of the film Spacey doesn’t want to know who won it, but how it can be won for Gore.
The trickiest part for the producers was how to blame the Supreme Court decision on Republicans when Democrats brought the matter to court in the first place. They do this by showing James Baker filing some sort of Federal lawsuit early in the film because he knows the Florida Supreme Court is full of lefties and he knows the case will find its way there. And though Baker’s suit goes nowhere and the U.S. court responds to the decision by the Florida court, we’re supposed to blame Baker for his earlier appraisal.
The Spacey people gasp when they read the verdict and they scratch their heads when the court says that this case is not to be used as a precedent that it counts for this election and this election only. In a piece of exposition, one staffer pipes up that it’s the first time in the history of the court this has ever happened. This is made out to be sinister when any constitutional lawyer knows that the U.S. Supreme Court doesn’t like to make rulings in overtly political cases, especially elections. This is strictly for self-preservation. Nothing in the constitution gives the court any particular power. Neither the legislative nor the executive branch even has to listen to the court. It’s become a tradition in this country that we do listen, but pushing too many boundaries is not a recipe for long term success. The one point barely remarked upon is the real quandary Democrats faced when it went to the high court. Liberals have counted on the court to give them most of the things voters do not want. Gore sends a message in the movie not to knock the court. It’s treated as statesmanlike instead of opportunistic. If Democrats stopped believing in the court then they would lose the only reliable leftward tilt this country has seen in the last 40 years. It’s pretty obvious to me that the Supremes weren’t happy with the Florida ruling and would have been happier to see this settled in the state legislature. They took the case to undo a bad ruling, but didn’t want the baggage of deciding future elections.
One of the most enjoyable parts of the film is Ed Begley Jr. as David Boise, the eccentric and brilliant lawyer for the Gore side. He’s a bit clumsy but lovable. One of the least enjoyable parts is the cartoon performance of Laura Dern as Katherine Harris. The case can be made that Harris was a political lightweight, but Dern plays her as a naïve fool easily led down the wrong path by a shrewd political operative. The tone is way too farcical for the rest of the film.
We only see the candidates from behind or hear them on the other end of the telephone. Removed is Gore’s odd vocal tone and kindergarten teacher way of talking to people. Bush, on the other hand, sounds like a cowboy character actor needing directions to Amarillo. Repeated in the film is the exchange between the two when Gore takes back his concession. The thing about the exchange that I remember from the time is Bush irritated that Gore takes the concession back and Gore saying, “You don’t have to get snippy.” I found that so appropriate from Gore, such a schoolmarm thing to say. I could even hear it in my head imagining the way he would say it all indignant. There isn’t a very masculine way to get that line out, but the producers tried their best here and it sounds like the wrong choice of words for the tone they use.
The movie doesn’t make someone like Jim Baker unlikable. Baker is talented and charming as a facade for his villainy. Talking to another Republican operative later in the film he admits that he was once a Democrat. Asked to tell the story he says his wife had died when he was 40 and a Republican friend asked him to help on his congressional campaign. Baker told the friend he was a Democrat, but the friend just didn’t want to see him so upset, so Baker joined up. When asked who that man was, Baker motions toward a picture of Bush 41. It’s a lot more subtle way of suggesting Baker is stealing the election for personal reasons and it makes him likable without making his side seem worthy of the office.
You do get the impression that the people fighting on both sides are doing so more to win the game than for the person or ideology that person represents. I think that’s a pretty honest portrayal of the way politics works on the inside. So even if the history here is selective, the process seems about right and it’s worth watching for that reason if nothing else.