A film review by Craig J. Koban

Rank: #13



2008, no MPAA rating, TV rating: MA, 117 mins.

Ron Klain: Kevin Spacey / Warren Christopher: John Hurt / James Baker: Tom Wilkinson / Katherine Harris: Laura Dern / William M. Daley: Mitch Pileggi / Michael Whouley: Denis Leary / 
David Boies: Ed Begley, Jr.

Directed by Jay Roach / Written by Danny Stron.

Premieres on HBO on May 25, 2008

Being a person that is intrigued by US Federal politics, I will be the first to say that something really irked me about the 2000 Presidential election results.  

What began as a typical political battle to assume the role of Commander and Chief by then Vice-President, Al Gore, and then Texas Governor, George W. Bush, would snowball into one of the single greatest election controversies in American history.  It was a hullabaloo involving voting machines, elderly voters that could not see properly, disenfranchised minority voters, and “chads” of every variety I never new existed…hanging, dimpled, pregnant, etc. 

As is widely known, it is the electoral vote that wins US elections, not the popular vote.  Bush won the election with more electoral votes (271 to Gore’s 266, a squeaker, to be sure), but Gore won more popular votes, which is only the fourth time in history that a president was elected without a plurality of votes.    

This, of course, was not what sparked a firestorm of controversy.  At approximately 7:50p.m. EST on Election Day some networks declared that Gore carried Florida’s 25 electoral votes based on exit poll numbers.  Yet, when actual vote tallies started coming in, Bush was slowly beginning to take the lead.  By 10p.m. EST, most of the networks retracted their initial predications that Gore would become the next President.  By 2:30a.m., with around 85 per cent of the Florida votes counted, Bush was in the lead and networks now were conceding that Dubya would be the next president.  By this time, Gore even placed a call to Bush to concede the election to him. 

Astounding, he would later retract. 

It would seem that remaining votes in the Gore/Democratic-centric counties were not completely counted, which led to Gore gaining ground against Bush, hence, eliciting his retraction of concession.  Eventually, Gore’s narrowed the margin to 2000 votes and decided to wait for a recount before finally conceding the White House to Bush.  When the first recount occurred in Florida the margin dwindled to 500, triggering a mandatory recount in the state.  Gore later asked for hand recounts – a very tricky venture.  All of this, and much more, would lead to set of a series of events that began a series of laborious – and problematic – recounts (some by hand, some by machine, both heavily contested by both parties), and inevitably materialized into  lawsuits.  

On December 12 the Supreme Court decided that the plan for recounting ballots was unconstitutional (many on the Supreme Court were Republican backed) and thus ended the recounts.  The vote was then ratified by Katherine Harris, the Republican Secretary of State for Florida (who also was the Florida co-chair of Bush’s campaign…hmmmm) and she essentially gave the election to Bush.  Even stickier was the fact that Jeb Bush, Georgie's younger brother, was the Governor of Florida, raising a few more easy red flags. 

All of this lengthy prologue helps to set up the extraordinarily evocative and compelling docudrama/political thriller, RECOUNT, which just may be the best reason to avoid the cinema and stay home to take in a movie (this film is not playing theatrically, but premiered on HBO May 25).  The film, featuring a wonderful all-star cast (all in top form), sure-fire direction, and a clever and suspenseful script makes RECOUNT both a stunning indictment of the miscarriages of justice that occurred during the post-2000 election, but is also is a mesmerizing tale of how both sides of each parties gathered together legal and political guns to duke it out in a winner-take-all fiasco.  

The film sets up the particulars of the election, but it ostensibly focuses squarely on the aftermath of Election Day, during which paranoid confusion outweighed any pretence of a clear-cut winner.  We get a sprawling story that covers a 36 day period from Election Day through to the Supreme Court rulings that would ultimately see Bush take the oath of office in January, 2001, much to both the joy and frustration of the two parties involved.  What we get is a film of uncanny forward momentum (despite the fact that we all know the end result, RECOUNT generates serious tension and a rigorously quick pacing throughout), not to mention that it gives equal screen time to both parties, as both approach dealing with the Florida election problem with the precision and calculation of football quarterbacks going head-to-head into the fourth quarter with the game tied. 

The film does a virtuoso job of mixing up newsreel footage and fictionalized recreations, all while showing just how mind thumbing the entire process of fixing this mammoth problem was for both sides.  Importantly, Bush and Gore are rarely seen in the film:  Oftentimes, we see fleeting glimpses of them from behind, or hear them briefly over the phone to their campaign officials and lawyers.  That’s of critical importance to the film’s focus:  actors playing the two politicians would have distracted from the true meat and potatoes of the film’s underlining story of the people below them that were willing to do just about anything to see their candidates see the Oval Office. 

Even better is the film’s uniformly solid assemble cast, who all play respective participants in the Democratic and Republican camps.  On the Democratic side we have Ron Klain (Kevin Spacey), a former Gore Chief of staffer that ends up leading the charge for a fair resolution to the election debacle.  He teams up with Gore’s Chief Field Officer, Michael Whouley (played in a great performance of hyperactively time dialogue and lightning fast verbal zingers by Dennis Leary).  We are also introduced to the former Secretary of State, Warren Christopher (John Hurt), whose submissiveness with dealing with the problem acts as a catalyst for Klain to go on the aggressive offensive.  We also get to see Democratic lawyer David Boise (Ed Begley Jr.), who at first looks like a bumbling doofus, but he becomes a well-articulated champion of Gore's plight that tries to recite the Democratic cause to the media. 

Then we have the Republicans and they are led by former Secretary of State James Baker (played brilliantly by Tom Wilkinson with a rough and tough pragmatism and a go-for-broke forward drive of a military general).  Also along for the ride is the campaign’s lead counsel, Bob Ginsberg (Bob Balaban, playing his part with a cool, underplayed, and icy charisma) and a strong-headed lobbyist named “Mac the Knife” (Bruce McGill) that specializes in “fixing messes”.  He primarily serves as an aid to Florida Secretary of State Harris (Laura Dern, in one of her best performances), who seems overwhelmed by the whole incident. 

RECOUNT has the façade of a political thriller, but underneath that is the fierce tale of mental combatants more akin to a war film.  James Baker and his Republicans take the opportunity of engaging in a lot of hardball political tactics.  But the film never portrays him as a black and white villain, nor does RECOUNT have the aura of being rabidly anti-Bush or pro-Gore.  What’s really intriguing is that the film gives each party equal weight and shows the mindsets and convoluted strategies that both engage in to get the upper hand on the other.  Baker, a wily old veteran, knows the ins and outs of this type of political battle, and his tactics are not so much vile as they are, most likely, a necessity considering the stakes.  Spacey’s Klain is equally a gripping character because of his deeply vented pride to do what is needed to see Gore get justice.  The manner the film juxtaposes both parties’ victories and struggles is exemplary. 

If the film has a more clear cut “villain role” than it would be Dern’s Harris and the actress has a field day transforming into the Florida Secretary, perfectly approximately her heavily made-up face, her nervous energy, and ultimately her inflections and speech patterns.  What’s so enriching – and a bit distressing – about Harris is that she is not so much a political player that that was willfully conveying or dastardly, but rather was a woman that failed to have a strong grasp on what was happening, he choice of actions, and even the legality of what she was doing.  

She comes across as a Martha Stewart-esque empowered woman that would not let any man sway her actions or opinions, but there are moments where Dern crafts a portrait of Harris as persona that craves the spotlight and yearns to be noticed…and she places a smug level of self-importance on her own participation in the election controversy.  “Ten years ago, “ she once states, “I was teaching the chicken dance to seniors, and now I've been thrust into a political tempest of historical dimensions."  She spends more time acknowledging how significant she was in helping to solve the election fiasco.  Most of the time, she seems completely oblivious to how inept and oblivious she is.  This, as a result, makes RECOUNT even more distressingly captivating: The fact that this unknowing and uninformed woman, at the end of the day, would decide the leader of the free world makes the film cry out with added disquieting unease. 

Top kudos have to go to the teleplay by Danny Strong, a shoe-in for an Emmy, but what’s remarkable here is how wry, sharp-witted, and intelligently drawn he makes his script.  Strong does not even have a journalism background, but his gifts are in tuning into the emotions of the real-life people involved (he interviewed more than 40 of the participants, and studied countless books on the subject).  The end result is a humanistic politically charged film that, like ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, has a firm grip for honing in on the characters and interplay first and routine historical details second.  Perhaps even more surprising is the resoundingly competent direction by Jay Roach, who slips into this unfamiliar genre with the poise and confidence of a cinematic veteran.  I say “unfamiliar” seeing as Roach’s biggest claim to fame is directing comedy farces and satires, like the MEET THE PARENTS and AUSTIN POWERS films.  RECOUNT, if anything, shows how gifted Roach is at human drama and crafted real world intrigue. 

HBO’s RECOUNT is a tough film to sit through.  The way it rightfully depicts the maddening events of the aftermath of the 2000 election are spot on and serve as a sobering wake-up call to complacent voters.  The film does have a stinging bite of irony, seeing as the Democratic’s main objective was an orderly transition of power, and the post-election struggles were anything but orderly (scenes involving lawyers on both sides contesting seemingly every single hand counted ballot will have you pulling your hair out, which I’m positive is the precise reaction the film is trying garner).  Nonetheless, RECOUNT is an authoritative and uncompromising recount of a very recent political and legal battle that wisely does not go out of its way to take cheap shots on the battlefront.  Like great political theatre, it simply shows us the events, the players, and the particulars and allows viewers to take it all in and draw their own conclusions.  As a result, the film becomes almost hypnotically cunning and thought provoking.  

Regardless of its small screen stature and release, RECOUNT is one of 2008’s best films.   


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CINEMA VERITE  (2011 jj1/2


TOO BIG TO FAIL  (2011jj1/2


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