After years as a jaded critic and cinephile, I pride myself—if “pride” is the right word—for my ability to watch just about anything. Last year, I saw Tony Kaye’s explicit, B&W, 152-minute abortion documentary three times. Of the 24 entries on our Inventory about great films too painful to watch twice, I’ve seen 17 at least two times and own 15 of those on DVD. To me, the subject matter of a film never really matters: Much like Roger Ebert, I subscribe to the notion that great movies are happy-making and bad ones are depressing. Give me a fellow suspended from hooks on the ceiling and doused in hot oil, as in Ichi The Killer, and I’ll keep on watching through webbed fingers. Point being, there’s very little that can sear these well-worn retinas.
With that said, had I not volunteered to review HBO’s Recount, a blow-by-blow account of the Bush-Gore debacle of 2000, I’d have changed the channel within about a minute and a half. It’s not that the film isn’t skillfully made—it’s quite good, in fact, and I’ll explain why in a minute—but some memories are just too excruciating to revisit. At the time, do recall, many voters were treating Bush and Gore like Kang and Kodos, marveling at the lack of important differences between the two candidates as both pandered to the center—Gore with his Clintonian compromising, Bush with his “compassionate conservatism.” But I think it’s safe to say that as went Florida in 2000, so went the nation… into the crapper.
Directed by Jay Roach, who’s primarily known for big-screen comedies like Austin Powers and Meet The Parents, Recount isn’t particularly funny, but undoubtedly works as farce; I suspect that with the benefit of hindsight—say, long after those of us who remember the 2000 election vividly are dead—maybe viewers will laugh themselves silly. Right now, however, it’s just too raw, like reminiscing about a crazy ex-girlfriend who still hasn’t moved out of your apartment. Just thinking about the whole surreal circus again gave me a headache: The hanging chads, the butterfly and “dimpled” ballots, the elderly Jews in West Palm Beach who cast votes for Pat Buchanan, the ghoulish Katherine Harris in her pancake makeup, the stalled recounts, the bizarre and unprecedented intervention of the U.S. Supreme Court.
While I’ll confess that my own political leanings are clouding my judgment here, I’d also argue that’s the point of Recount: That the politicization of the voting process led to a great perversion of the democratic process. (And I say this with the obvious disclaimer that voting processes and politics are frequently intertwined, from the gerrymandering of districts to the apportioning of Michigan and Florida’s delegates in the Democratic primary to the prohibitive Indiana voting law just affirmed by the Supreme Court.) Florida was set up to deliver its electoral votes to Bush: After all, Bush’s brother Jeb was the Governor and Secretary Of State Harris, who also served as his campaign co-chair in the state, was the one certifying the votes. What the situation lacked, at every juncture, was an objective figure or authoritative body to apply common sense and consider the integrity of the process over partisan concerns.
Starting with the nail-biting Election Night that saw the networks declare the state for Gore, retreat to “too close to call,” and then declare it for Bush in the wee hours instead, Recount moves swiftly and efficiently through the whole affair, which certainly didn’t lack for drama. Bush and Gore themselves are fairly removed from the process, so it’s up to a handful of key political operatives to do their bidding: From the Gore camp, there’s Ron Klain (Kevin Spacey), a former Chief Of Staff for the Vice President who remained loyal despite a rocky history with the campaign; former Secretary Of State Warren Christopher (John Hurt), seen here as fatally weak-willed; Chief Field Operative Michael Whouley (Denis Leary), Klain’s brawler of a right-hand man; and David Boies (Ed Begley, Jr.), the brilliant lawyer who argued the case in front of the Florida and U.S. Supreme Courts. For Bush, the primary mover is James Baker (Tom Wilkinson), here seen as perhaps the savviest thinker from either camp; powerful Republican lobbyist Mac “Mac The Knife” Stipanovich (Bruce McGill); Lead Counsel Ben Ginsberg (Bob Balaban); and the aforementioned Harris, played with oblivious zeal (and unintended, not-at-all-true-to-life sexiness) by Laura Dern.
Though it views the events from both sides, Recount doesn’t do much to hide its revulsion over what happened in Florida, nor should it, really: Movies aren’t obligated to be uphold journalistic objectivity, but to tell the truth as their makers see it. (Besides, as Stephen Colbert would say, “Truth has a well-known liberal bias.”) But outside of Dern’s hilariously cartoonish depiction of Harris—which oddly echoes her role as a paint-huffing mom-to-be in the abortion satire Citizen Ruth—the film does have respect for skill-set of operators on both sides. The Gore camp worked hard to keep the recounts going, the Bush supporters worked hard to railroad the results through the system, and neither can really be faulted for doing their jobs. (That is, unless you don’t care about voter suppression. Then one side can definitely be faulted.) If anything, the film ultimately nods to the Bushies for outmaneuvering their counterparts, even while it suggests that the deck was impossibly stacked in their favor. Either way, democracy lost—as did America, which wound up with far more transformative leader than it bargained for.
As I said earlier, revisiting this gruesome blight on the electoral process—and pondering where the country would go the next eight years as a result—was about as entertaining to me as a chainsaw vasectomy. But Recount is nonetheless accomplished and useful in piecing together a sequence of events that seemed confusing and chaotic from the outside. The effect is like watching a freeway pile-up in slow motion.