On the Aisle


The first five months of 2008 at the movies have been a distressing period. “Iron Man” had its moments as did “The Bank Job” and “Street Kings,” but only “The Visitor” will make my ten best list. It’s been a tepid time for cineastes.

So far, 2008 has been a better year on television than at the movies. TV has had some great entertainment experiences.

As good as anything in movie theaters this year was the inventive, emotional, shattering two-week finale of “House.” The seven-week HBO movie about John Adams with Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney was stellar.

Now a second HBO movie has made its mark of excellence on TV. “Recount” probably would die at the box office in movie theaters, but it prevails on television. It’s a hard sell.

I didn’t want to watch a regurgitation of the Florida recount that would decide the presidential election in 2000. I’m exhausted watching society’s dirty laundry in its endless spin cycle. I’ve gotten my fill of messy, craven politics in the Democratic campaign of 2008. I didn’t have to go back to 2000 for a dose of hypocrisy and angst.

I was going to avoid “Recount.” It had no upside for me. But this was one time that an actor making the rounds of TV talk shows had its impact.

Kevin Spacey, on a multitude of TV appearances, did a convincing sales job for his film. I still was unenthusiastic about seeing “Recount,” but when it came on, I found myself tuning it in. I’m glad I did.

I did re-experience the frustration of 2000, but “Recount” transcends a mere recapitulation. Its actors make sure of that.

“Recount” is the story of the actual recount battle over the votes in Florida, which decided who would be president of the United States.

What a mess.

On the night of the presidential election, the TV networks first declared that Gore had won Florida. Later they reneged and said that it was too close to call. Finally they announced that Florida had been won by Bush, and therefore he would be the new president.

But as Al Gore is riding in a limo to make his concession speech, his campaign learns that there have been some major glitches in the vote counting, and Gore is only behind by 1,784 votes, and a recount is feasible. They try to reach Gore before he delivers his concession speech.

Even though we know how the scene is going to end, we get swept up in the suspense. Hitchcock taught us how effective suspense done well can be. This makes for a very exciting sequence.

“Recount” focuses on Ron Klain (Kevin Spacey), Gore’s former chief of staff, and his efforts on behalf of Gore.

“Recount” is influenced by the book by Jeffrey Toobin, and is based on interviews by screenwriter Danny Strong.

The screenplay reminds us of facts with which many people may not be familiar: Gore won the popular vote by 500,000, and 20,000 voters were purged off the voter list in Florida because they were felons or had names somewhat similar to felons. Twenty thousand! A three-person committee voted 2-1 to suspend the recount in Florida. Some older voters, because of ballot confusion, mistakenly voted for Pat Buchanan. Now, that’s a horror film.

A major theme in “Recount” is that James Baker (portrayed by Tom
Wikinson) said, “This is a street fight for the presidency of the United States… It doesn’t get more
political than that.”

On the other hand, Warren Christopher (John Hurt) espoused that Gore take a mealy-mouthed high road.

Baker was in a street fight; Christopher was in a pillow fight.

The cast is terrific. Spacey has the gleam back in his eye. Ed Begley, Jr. is forceful and lively as Gore attorney David Boies.

James Baker is very impressive in “Recount.” Tom Wilkinson creates a compelling, human portrait as the hard-bitten pol. It is no wonder that Baker has arranged screenings of the movie. Who wouldn’t, if he were played by award-winning Wilkinson?

One who won’t arrange screenings is Katherine Harris, the secretary of state of Florida, and the state’s loony bird. She is the only parody in the movie. Laura Dern creates a delicious portrait of a woman who is half witch and half clown. Even Baker called Harris “hopeless.”

“Recount” was directed—mostly ably—by Jay Roach. But sometimes the dialogue is delivered in a stilted manner as each character perfunctorily speaks his or her line in a discussion. The telling last image may remind the viewer of “Citizen Kane.”

“Recount” was supposed to be directed by Sydney Pollack, but he was diagnosed with cancer. He died the day after “Recount” appeared on TV.

As Kevin Spacey has said, whatever one’s politics, “the system is broken.” That’s the major theme of “Recount.”

At the end, Baker says, “the system worked.”

The hell it did.

Categories: Entertainment