At the time of the 2000 United States Presidential Election, I was 13 years old. I was (and am) fairly unaware of political situations in my own country (for instance, I had to look on Wikipedia to see who was Prime Minister before Jean Chrétien). Despite this political ignorance, I was nonetheless aware of the fact that something was up in the U.S. about their election. Before watching Recount, my understanding of the situation, largely influenced by Michael Moore, was that George W. Bush had somehow compromised the integrity of the federal election, and cost Al Gore the presidency of the United States. I wasn’t particularly rooting for anyone to win, although I thought Gore’s name was pretty cool. Now, over a decade later, HBO has presented a dramatization of the events of those fateful weeks, and I, assuming that HBO can be trusted (and who am I to question the network that brought us Six Feet Under), am much better informed for it.
While the film does focus on, and seemingly champion Kevin Spacey’s character, Ron Klain, who took on the responsibility of keeping the hopes of a Democratic victory in Florida alive, much of the narrative’s success comes from the immediate comparisons and contrasts between the two parties’ efforts. As soon as we hear what the Democrats have to say about something, we hear what the Republicans have to say. Oftentimes this serves to showcase the inherently problematic nature of political discussion. The two parties will take the exact same piece of information and, without ever speaking untruths, will come to shockingly different conclusions. This device also serves to demonstrate the escalation of the situation. When the Republicans bring in the big guns (James Baker, played by Tom Wilkinson) to help focus the party’s efforts, the Democrats respond by pulling in Warren Christopher (John Hurt). Each side has a seemingly unstoppable juggernaut team of advisors, wordsmiths, and interns, with nearly everybody being shown to be passionate, driven, and talented, if not necessarily entirely party-loyal.
I say “nearly” everyone because there’s a wrench thrown in here. Katherine Harris (Laura Dern), is an individual from the whole clusterfudge that I was in no way aware of. Surrounded by strong, clever individuals, the Katherine Harris of Recount is an uncertain, easily manipulated, who is way over her head. Imagine Saturday Night Live‘s Sarah Palin and mesh it with Oliver Stone’s take on G.W. himself from W. and you’ve got Recount‘s Katherine Harris. There are a few possible reasons for this:
1) Any good story needs a villain. By demonizing Harris, the movie is able to focus on the essential similarities between both political parties.
2) Katherine Harris is exactly the person she is appears to be onscreen, an easily swayed former beauty pageant winning, range-rover driving soccer mom type whose self-awareness makes her ignorance all the more tragic. I have no way of confirming this, and neither does anyone who made the film either because…
3) Writer Danny Strong (Jonathan from Buffy) interviewed basically everyone who would be represented in the film, but was refused an appearance with Harris. So, without as strong a basis to go on (or maybe even spite), Harris ends up being portrayed and lampooned as she popularly was back in 2000. According to IMDb, the director filmed Dern’s scenes thrice, with varying levels of parody and seriousness. What they don’t say is which take they went with. If this was supposed to be the straight-up level, then I’d hate to see what they would do with a parody.
Another strength this movie has is in getting you caught up in its drama. Largely thanks to Spacey’s acting, we are rooting for him and cheering on his triumphs. Even though we all know how this thing turned out, we can’t help but feel nervous during the film’s moments of tension, as though, hoping against hope, that we could just get it right this time, that Ron Klain could somehow pull it out. If Tarantino got to kill Hitler at the end of Inglourious Basterds, then surely Jay Roach could give the Presidency to Gore.
Overall, even to a foreigner who learned most of his information about the election from SNL, Recount is a great movie that doesn’t mind taking the time to make sure you know what’s going on. I appreciate its patience and the education.