Judge Mike Rubino can operate a butterfly ballot. You hear that, Florida?
The future of the nation was hanging by a chad.
Director Jay Roach has assembled an all-star cast to accomplish the near-impossible: Make a movie about vote tallying exciting. Of course, he was working with source material so insane and improbable that no fiction writer could ever dream it up.
Facts of the Case
In 2000, the Presidential election came down to Florida; specifically, a few counties occupied by some of the most confused elderly on the planet. Thanks to poor typographical design, a portion of those elderly people failed to successfully negotiate their butterfly ballot, leading to accidental votes for Pat Buchanan, pregnant and dimpled chads, and utter chaos that would drag the election on for weeks. With the Executive Office up for grabs, politicos and lawyers from the Gore and Bush camps descended upon the state and fought over every vote. While we all know the outcome, HBO's Recount offers up an insider's perspective on the twists and turns of the most divisive election in United States history.
If I didn't remember all this happening, I would say that Recount is far too melodramatic and outlandish; yet, sadly, this crazy series of events surrounding a truly baffling Florida election system is very real. While this could have been another conspiracy-laden, overtly-partisan rant about our current President stealing an election, Jay Roach took a more academic and interesting approach. The Presidential candidates themselves are barely characters in the film, reduced to the equivalent of Home Improvement's faceless neighbor, Wilson. In the battle for the White House, Roach focused on the soldiers rather than the generals.
Leading the way is Ron Klain (played dutifully by Kevin Spacey), the rejected Gore politico who apprehensively returns to work for the campaign. And while he wants nothing to do with Al Gore, regardless of whether or not he gets elected, Klain is pulled deeper into the fight once he finds the voting results are wonky. Working alongside him is the Mamet-esque Michael Whouley (Denis Leary), the gentlemanly Warren Christopher (John Hurt), and the landshark David Boies (Ed Begley Jr.). This rag-tag group of Dems are the focus, as they struggle with archaic laws and a feisty opposition (led by Tom Wilkinson as James Baker Jr.). While the narrative may feel unbalanced at times, it's clear that the more interesting story can be found on the losing side.
With superb acting and an incredibly twisting sequence of events, Jay Roach (Austin Powers) filmed Recount as if it were a Paul Greengrass action film. The camera is fluent and organic, making even the lamest of office scenes feel like it's taking place on a train heading towards a mountain crash. Adding to the suspense and drama is his incredible use of archival news footage. At times, the footage from the major news networks in 2000 is woven seamlessly into the movie, making everything feel authentic and immediate. In the audio commentary, Roach and writer Danny Strong talk about their goal of complete authenticity. And even though the movie can overstep its bounds in terms of dramatic license (the certifiably goofy portrayal of Katherine Harris by Laura Dern for one), you're too caught up in breakneck pacing to really care.
HBO no doubt sped up their schedule to get Recount out on DVD in time for this November's election, but that doesn't mean they skimped on production value. The video and sound quality is top-notch, and the special features aren't anything to sniff at. The most thorough and in-depth supplement is the audio commentary with Roach and Strong. These two provide plenty of insight into their research practices and approach to the story. But if you don't feel like watching this nearly two-hour film again, you can get a decent summary of the commentary by watching "The True Inside Story of the 2000 Presidential Election," a 20-minute featurette. There are also two cool conversations between the actors and their real-life counterparts. Spacey sits down with the real Ron Klain and Bob Balaban sits down with Ben Ginsberg. These segments are short, but it's nice to hear from at least a couple of the real folks involved in the recount.
Whether or not you enjoy Recount doesn't hinge on if you appreciated the outcome of the 2000 election. HBO assembled an outstanding cast and crew to create a gripping political thriller that doesn't center around some sort of assassination. Instead of retiring secret service agents, we get haggard campaigners; instead of a serial killer, we get mobs of radicals with signs; and instead of a cat-and-mouse chase, we get cat-and-mouse election deadlines.
Yep, vote tallying sure is exciting.
The State Court rules this one GUILTY. The Federal Court rules this one NOT GUILTY.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with Director Jay Roach and writer Danny Strong
Review content copyright © 2008 Michael Rubino; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.