Who Demanded a Recount?

HBO’s pointless film about the 2000 election.

Ed Begley Jr. (left) and Kevin Spacey in Recount

The New York Times reported last week that a number of the figures depicted in Jay Roach’s Recount (HBO, May 25 at 9 p.m. ET)—a film about the seizure of the U.S. presidency in the Sunshine State in the year 2000—are displeased with their portrayals therein. Bush consigliere James Baker (played by Tom Wilkinson) feels that too much ruthlessness has been ascribed to his character; while Warren Christopher (John Hurt), Baker’s Democratic counterpart, objects to looking like a wimp; and William M. Daley, Gore’s campaign chairman, says that the movie’s account of the Gore campaign’s decision-making process is all hooey. Why these gripes merited an article, I do not know, but the kerfuffle just goes to show the vanity and myopia of the political class.

I mean, these guys spent time in front ofan impressively bad movie, and then could only think about themselves and their legacies? Where’s the outrage about Roach’s poor pacing? About the screenwriters’ anti-inventiveness? About the terrible miscasting of Ed Begley Jr. as David Boies? The core problem with Recount lies in its being at once fatally cynical and touchingly naive about American democracy. It grovels for the approval of political junkies while flaunting the shallowest interest in politics, and everything flows from there in the most silly fashion.

Consider an early election-night scene: Al Gore—played, very briefly, by a look-alike, his voice dubbed, rather badly, by an impersonator—thinks that he has clearly lost in Florida and motorcades across Nashville to deliver his concession speech. Back at campaign headquarters, they determine that the situation is nebulous—that Bush’s margin of victory is so narrow as to necessitate a machine recount—and one roly-poly aide is sent bumbling and blubbering in Gore’s path. Though the physical comedy is lackluster, what really sinks the moment is the air of suspense Roach attempts to waft into existence. His pulsing music and Bourne-style camera moves seem a bit much here, and the movie’s attempts to make like a thriller are risible throughout. Most of us know that Al Gore is not now, nor ever has been, the president of the United States, so we won’t be biting our nails about court rulings on dimpled chads. “Anybody here ever heard of a chad?” someone asks early on, again indicating that this will be one of those movies, a short-hop nostalgia trip complete with news footage and SNL bits.

As a senior Gore adviser—and, structurally, the hero of the movie—Kevin Spacey is on a special kind of West Wing autopilot. As Christopher, Hurt looks like Ian McKellen playing Neville Chamberlain. As Baker, Wilkinson is entirely wrong—too ruddy and crude and pushy, as if Baker had learned to be mercilessly shrewd as a hanging judge in the Texas backwoods, when everybody knows that he picked it up at Princeton. As Boies, Begley, with his iron jaw, looks mostly like Eliot Spitzer. They’re all fluent in exposition: “Our first step should be explaining this butterfly ballot situation. …” Spoiler alert: The case goes to the Supreme Court!

The one redeeming factor here is Laura Dern, who puts that elastic jolie laide mug of hers to memorable use as Katherine Harris. The performance makes you wish that Recount—which does contain a few fine moments of wild farce—had instead been created as a seven-episode sitcom playing out from her point of view. Since Harris emerged on the national stage, she has been caricatured as a toady, a shrew, a tart, and a nitwit, and Dern does all this, too, but makes her sympathetic, a nice Southern lady in over her head, maybe, or Homer Simpson in rouge, or, in any case, a person exactly as vain and bewildered as the rest of us citizens.