Remember the wrangling, endless discussion about chads (hanging, dimpled or otherwise) and the intense battling over hand recounts? Nine years and a new president later, it can be difficult to summon those heady 36 days when Republicans and Democrats wrestled for victory in the 2000 election. Let Recount serve as a reminder.
HBO aired the film last May, when the sun was setting on George W Bush's presidency, and now it has come to DVD, chalking up major awards on the way, including Emmys and Golden Globes. The film unquestionably leans to the left, with the Al Gore adviser Ron Klain (Kevin Spacey) portrayed as a kind of heroic George Washington figure, battling against the evil machinations of the Republican camp as they make their stealthy moves to snatch victory.
But while the characterisation might be black and white, the situation in November and December 2000, as the film shows, inspired a level of confusion that put it up there with quantum physics. In fact, Recount captures this confusion so well that unless you have a PhD in the American constitution or have made an exhaustive study of the voting patterns of elderly Palm Beach residents, it may prove somewhat tricky to follow.
The film opens simply enough, with scenes of geriatric voters bent over their ballots in the voting booth on election day, scratching their heads. "Bush or Gore? I just can't decide," their puzzled expressions say. Finally they exercise their democratic right with a hole punch and totter off. Job done. Or is it? Confusion arises as it soon becomes clear that, despite several television networks calling a Republican win, the numbers are too close in Florida for anything to be certain. Did the voters hole punch firmly enough? If the numbers are that close in Florida, what about other states? Could those dear elderly voters even read the confusing ballot paper?
From this point, the film is taken up with a good dose of lawyer-speak, with the odd, laughable Hollywood line thrown in. "It's a street fight for the presidency," proclaims Bush's chief legal adviser, James Baker (Tom Wilkinson), from his mahogany, air-conditioned office. "We are the world's greatest democracy," says the former Secretary of State and Gore lawyer Warren Christopher (John Hurt). Perhaps the film should come with a special advisory. If you're the sort to thrill at the inner workings of the American political system, you can rehash the finer points of the decisions made and debate whether the film represents those involved fairly. But if not, you may be better off treating the whole thing like a John Grisham thriller full of baddies and goodies and pretending you don't know the outcome. This can also help you deal with some of the inaccuracies that the film has been charged with, despite the fact that several of its central subjects were given a chance to review the script before shooting began. (For brevity's sake, for example, the film simplifies the various court rulings that were made.)
Chief among those cast as villains is Katherine Harris, the then-Secretary of State for Florida who appears to have a wardrobe of suits with an IQ higher than her own. "On the advice of legal counsel, I won't be answering your questions," she says brightly after a series of press conferences in which she announces the blocking of Democratic moves for recount extensions. It is a part played adroitly by Laura Dern, who won a Golden Globe for her performance.
The top goody is of course Spacey as the Democratic lawyer on a mission to save the world (and who cries when Gore tells him that he will finally concede). Spacey, who is strong throughout, was one of the film's producers and he, too, was nominated for a Golden Globe, though didn't win one. Between Harris and Klain is a murky cast of politicos and lawyers, wrinkly Supreme Court judges and fiery, young political students. We only ever see Bush (Brent Mendenhall) and Gore (Grady Couch) from the back, or hear their voices over the telephone. "Seems like no one can make sense of this thing," chuckles Bush at one point, adeptly summing up the very heart of the problem.