Weekend Film Recommendation: Recount

Next year, election season will bring with it a painful reminder of the last time someone named Bush made us pay close attention to Florida. This weekend’s movie recommendation, HBO’s Recount, dramatizes the crisis of political legitimacy occasioned by hanging, lingering, and downright stubborn chads up to and including Bush v. Gore.

The film was produced in 2008, and the same fascination with the fragility of politics that inspired the film then makes the film just as entertaining again now. The film begins once the electoral campaigns have already concluded, and whichever remaining Floridians still eligible to vote after surviving the state’s stringent restrictions designed to winnow out the ‘undesirables’ are punching a hole next to their preferred candidate’s name. Except that the layout of the ballot, thanks to an idiosyncrasy of design, meant that Pat Buchanan garnered an unusually high share of the vote (so much so that he himself conceded his numbers seemed to depart from even his own most ambitious projections).

An embarrassing retraction of Gore’s concession to Bush followed, and a bitter struggle ensued to figure out who truly had won the vote in Florida. The protagonist of the action, if it’s correct to think in such terms, is Ron Klain, played by Kevin Spacey. As Gore’s former chief of staff, Klain was tasked with coordinating the recount effort on behalf of the Democrats while Benjamin Ginsberg (played by Bob Balaban) does the same in his capacity as chief counsel to the Bush-Cheney campaign.

Recount really gets going once the cast of characters is fully set, caricatures (more on that in a moment) and all. Although it’s frustrating that in some instances the motivations are fairly straightforward (Ginsberg stands out in this respect), some other characters are a lot more complex and engaging to watch. Klain, in particular, undergoes a remarkable transformation from dogged strategist to fierce attack-dog to petulant lackey. Upon the film’s conclusion, he’s not so much quixotic as he is just plain obstinate. For both Klain and Ginsberg, there’s a remarkable sense of prioritizing victory at the expense of the country’s weakening faith in the electoral process as a whole. Even in the film’s waning moments, as the Supreme Court issued its death knell to the Democrats’ hopes, it took Gore to quell Klain’s pursuit of recourse—not the other way around—to pronounce an end to the election.

Recount was successful enough to incline HBO toward making another film of very similar ilk. Game Change (reviewed here), which deals with the embarrassment of Sarah Palin’s Vice Presidential candidacy, pairs very nicely with Recount in that neither is outrightly partisan. With that said, Recount isn’t shy about injecting a touch of humor and parody in an otherwise solemn story.

Take, for example, the asymmetry in the strategies each team adopts. Some amusing editing does the heavy lifting here: James Baker (Bush’s champion, played by Tom Wilkinson with bravura) frames the race as a “street fight” that licenses his team to do whatever’s necessary, because “this is as political as it gets.” Cut to Warren Christopher (Gore’s feckless champion, played by John Hurt), on the other hand, who comically announces that his team is to allow the legal process to work as planned and eschew anything that would reduce the race to anything deserving of lesser dignity than the occasion demands.

But creative editing alone isn’t the only part of Recount you’ll find laugh-worthy. While most of the characters are relatively ordinary, Laura Dern’s characterization of Katherine Harris (the head of Bush’s Florida campaign and the Secretary of State responsible for handling the media and electoral administration) borders on pantomime. The heavy make-up is one thing; her spineless capitulation to pressure from GOP advisors is another. If Game Change is the sequel to Recount, then Harris is the brightest and most continuous line connecting the two films. After all, in the dwindling legitimacy of the presidential election, it’s Harris—like Palin—who sees opportunity rather than tragedy.

Recount isn’t a heartening film, no matter which side you came out on. Yet somehow it’s a surprisingly fun dramatization of what otherwise could have been a pretty sombre recreation of one of the country’s great fiascos.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Johann Koehler

Johann Koehler is a doctoral student in the School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley. He tweets at @KoehlerJA.