Recount: A Nightmare Revisited
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HBO's Recount will make you angry, it will infuriate you, and it may even cause you nightmares--which is precisely why it should be seen.
The docudrama covers, in excruciating detail, the thirty-six days Al Gore and George W. Bush battled over Florida's electoral votes and by extension the presidency in 2000. It's striking how this event has come to represent ancient history for so many Americans, as if we all took Antonin Scalia's "get over it" remark to heart and did indeed let our outrage over the Supreme Court's pro-Bush ruling slip from our consciousness. Hopefully, this film, airing on HBO through July, will remind progressives of the injustice and tragedy that took place that election year, because it could still occur again. The nation's voting machines are still not up to snuff, and in the case of a close vote on election night there's no reason to think the networks won't jump the gun and make the wrong calls all over again.
It's miraculous that a film about an event from eight years ago, which was covered exhaustively and whose result is so well known, manages to be so consistently entertaining. Credit must go to Recount's script, which manages to cover all of the bases without sacrificing wit and realism, and its acclaimed cast, who bring to life several infamous moments. Laura Dern gives a terrific, appropriately over-the-top and oddly sympathetic portrayal of Katherine Harris that will make your skin crawl (in one creepy scene she compares herself to Queen Esther sacrificing herself for the Jews).
For the most part Harris and her Republican cohorts are the villains of the piece, with the Democrats, led by Kevin Spacey as Ron Klain, the earnest but overmatched heroes. At times the film feels like a depressing, albeit honest, laundry list of the major strategic blunders made by the Democrats. Warren Christopher (played by John Hurt as aloof and näive) wants to be diplomatic and negotiate with the Republicans. Meanwhile, James Baker (played with mustache-twirling menace by the brilliant Tom Wilkinson) wants to and succeeds in politicizing the recount from the start. However, the film does lay much of the blame for what transpired on Harris, Baker and the GOP team, who managed to stop or slow down the vote count almost every step of the way. Later, we are forced to relive the fluctuations in the vote count, the revelation that thousands of African-Americans were illegally turned away from the polls and, of course, the endless discussion of dimpled and hanging chads. Some have quibbled with the portrayal of Christopher as an effete wimp, and the film should certainly not be viewed as a documentary or the definitive interpretation of the events that unfolded that winter.
Still, several intriguing and pivotal moments are recreated quite well in the film, including Joe Lieberman's disastrous decision to advocate on behalf of counting unsigned military ballots, which helped solidify Bush's lead and his position in the recount fight. Gore and Bush mostly appear as voices over the telephone, but Gore's concession retraction is a highlight (Bush's petulant whine that "my little brother assures me I've won" is very amusing). As these events unfold, a viewer feels a deep sadness, but also an anger because the truth is as clear now as it was then: thousands of votes were not counted, thousands more were illegally purged from the rolls, while the Supreme Court looked the other way and handed the election to George W. Bush.
At one point a frustrated Klain says, "We're in the middle of a recount and the votes aren't being recounted and nobody seems to care!" With 2008 hindsight, we are right there with him. But at the time many Democrats and progressives were like the film's Warren Christopher character. We had faith that the proceedings would play out fairly, while Baker and his team, far more savvy, played a "street fight" to win.
Prior to the final vote ratification, even The Nation suggested,"If Bush is elected, he will be forever known as the President who came in second with voters, then was rescued by the Electoral College. That lame status should inhibit--if not immobilize--any ability to make radical changes." We couldn't have been more wrong.
If Recount has a significant flaw, it's that it doesn't make it clear that we are not necessarily better off now in terms of election reform then we were back in 2000. Tim Griffin, who served on Bush's Florida recount team (and later was picked by Karl Rove to serve as a US attorney), has been hired to run the RNC's Obama opposition research team. Impoverished communities still have too few voting machines, and those in place are still unreliable and flawed. Recount makes no call for electoral reform. So at best we can hope that enough people have learned from 2000 and 2004 how important a fair and free election really is.