The most horrifying moment in Recount, HBO’s docudrama retelling of the disastrous 2000 presidential election ballot blunder in Florida, comes at the end of the film. A montage of documentary footage plays once the docudrama is over, reminding us that the characters we’ve just seen are not characters at all, but real people whose choices and political agendas have shaped American history, for better or worse.
Director Jay Roach, known for blockbuster comedies like Meet the Parents and Austin Powers, does not need to give this material comedic edge. The inherent farce of the subject matter accomplishes that on its own. Screenwriter Danny Strong confines the 36-day circus a crisp 2-hour-long political drama. The result is a devastating tragicomedy — emphasis on the “tragic” — that rehashes the exhausting political theatre of ballot-counting and jittery, nail-biting news watching, almost ad nauseum.
At the centre of the maelstrom is General Counsel of Democratic candidate Al Gore’s Recount Committee, Ron Klain, played with exasperated wittiness and just enough touching idealism by Kevin Spacey. Klain and Michael Whouley (Denis Leary) lead the Gore camp’s campaign for a comprehensive recount in Florida as piece after piece of damning evidence comes in confirming that Florida’s elderly populace was not adequately served by the state’s uneven and antiquated voting system. On the other side is Team Bush, represented with cunning savviness by James Baker (Tom Wilkinson) and Ben Ginsberg (Bob Balaban).
It’s a rigged fight to begin with. John Hurt plays Warren Christopher, the nostalgic gatekeeper of an old-fashioned approach to political negotiation, who comes across as painfully naive when he tries to take the high road. If one side is playing a dignified gentleman’s game, and the other is bringing knuckledusters — who do you think is going to win? By the time the Gore camp lines up their weapons, it’s too late. In fact, it might have always been too late thanks to the wicked machinations of voter fraud, including a racist “purge list” which disenfranchised up to 20,000 mostly African-American voters, as estimated by a Gore aide. Ed Begley Jr. plays David Boies, who takes the Gore’s recount case all the way to the Supreme Court, where an unprecedented “limited” vote brings the democratic process to a screeching halt. Meanwhile, jargon like “dangling chads” and “butterfly ballots” are visually explained — while the film does its best to unpack this convoluted system, it is perhaps the system itself that it is to blame, not the film, for any lingering bewilderment.
While Recount may sport an impressively stacked cast, it’s Laura Dern’s scene-stealing portrayal of Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris that remains most memorable. Dean plays Harris not as a calculating super villain so much as a happy-go-lucky agent of chaos, basking in her long-awaited moment in the sun, a hapless marionette of conservative masterminds like Republican lobbyist “Mac the Knife” Stipanovich (Bruce McGill). In a moment of particularly hilarious parody, Harris compares herself to Queen Esther, sacrificing herself “to save the lovely Jewish people.”
Like most docudramas, the film walks a careful tightrope of entertaining fictionalization and fact-hounding journalism. For the most part, Recount gets the facts right. Certain scenes are dramatized, like a hapless aide breathlessly chasing down Al Gore right before he reaches the stage to deliver his concession speech, tripping and falling before finally managing to flag him down.
More than anything else, Recount aims to be a cautionary tale, laying bear what happens when elections are staged like chess games instead of barometers of the will of the American people. The portrayal errs on the side of the Democratic underdogs, but Recount is by no means liberal agitprop. If anything, it shows that within the bipartisan battleground, the two sides are not altogether dissimilar. Foul play has defined the American electoral system for decades — the 2000 election is not so much an aberration as it is a culmination of years of aggressively partisan agendas bastardizing the voting process.
The last image of the film is a corridor stacked high with uncounted ballot boxes. There are no spoilers to be found here. We all know how this story ends, and yet Jay Roach’s thriller-like pacing and Strong’s whip-smart writing manages to keep the suspense tense throughout. As the curtain closes on the woeful stage of Bush’s eight-year presidency, the question that compels Recount forward is perhaps the most simple one of all, voiced by Klain towards the end of the film: who really won?
While it might be satisfying to dip your toes into the waters of hypothetical situation, there are few what-ifs to be found here. The film does not so much dwell on what a Gore presidency could have been as much as wonder how this corrupt circus came to define the American electoral process to begin with. What’s most chilling of all is how genuinely myopic both sides are, utterly convinced that they stand on the correct side of history. Meanwhile, in 2008, the chasm has deepened to an gaping gulf. Recount might be shouting for the other side to hear their reasonable argument for a comprehensive review of the electoral system, but by now, the responsible parties are too far to reach. If Recount is a cautionary cry, it’s falling on deaf ears.