Starting with its premiere last night on HBO, I’ve been watching bits and pieces of Recount (IMDB), the cable channel’s dramatization of the month-long battle between Democrats and Republicans in the aftermath of the 2000 election. I did ultimately watch the whole thing, but it’s a hard movie to take in a single sitting. Like a lot of bloggers I admire, including Atrios and Eric Alterman (who chose not to watch), I was somewhat ambivalent about revisiting these events, especially since I believe, as Alterman himself documents in What Liberal Media?, there is plenty of evidence that Gore won a plurality of the votes in Florida. But my interest in political drama outweighed my better instincts, and I’ve been watching it, usually in a state of distraction, in part because it’s difficult to watch the film without being acutely aware , to borrow from Leonard Cohen, that the the good guys lost. But while the film acknowledges many of the troubling problems that cast doubt on the legitimacy of Florida’s vote–the illegitimate purging of thousands of names from voter rolls, the divergent standards used to identify the “intent” of voters, the problem of political appointees overseeing election results–Recount is forced to stop short of asking some of the more troubling questions about how elections are conducted and how they are covered.
It would be easy, perhaps, to treat the 2000 election as “ancient history,” as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia urged in a recent interview cited by Alessandra Stanley in her New York Times review, but as Stanley herself observes, the film and the ambivalent reaction it has received, among liberal bloggers in particular, illustrates how that is far from true. In fact, many of these very questions are being revisited again in the ongoing drama of the Democratic presidential primary, as many people have pressured Hillary Clinton to drop out of the race, while Clinton cautions against wrapping things up so quickly, making HBO’s film perhaps even more timely than ever.
It’s pretty clear, of course, that Recount starts with the assumption that the Dems were on the right side in Florida. The film’s primary points of identification are Michael Whouley (Denis Leary) and Ron Klain (Kevin Spacey), who had been Gore’s Chief of Staff before Gore fired him in 1999. At the beginning of the film we see Whouley noticing, just as Florida was being called for Bush that “there’s something wrong with the numbers.” As the true nature of the problem begins to emerge–the infamous butterfly ballot in Palm Beach county producing thousands of unintended votes for Pat Buchanan–the Gore team launches swiftly into action, pushing Gore to withdraw a statement conceding the election. On the other side, Republicans, led by James Baker (Tom Wilkinson) with a strong assist from Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris (Laura Dern), immediately work to slow down the recount and to protect Bush’s narrow margin of victory.
This focus on political insiders sets up one of the film’s chief interpretations of the Florida recount: in essence a small number of lawyers and political operatives essentially hijacked the election, and the Republican lawyers happened to play a little dirtier (or at least had a few more seats on the Supreme Court). And I think the film does a good job of depicting Baker’s technique of creating tension by inciting demonstrators to protest on behalf of Bush, with a helicopter flying overhead pulling a banner reading “Surrender Gorethy,” while polo-clad marchers chant and shake their fists. As Cynthia Fuchs points out, Baker’s strategy was to provoke such tension that the American public would demand a quicker resolution.
More crucially, as the hand recounts began in several districts, Republican vote monitors sought to challenge any ballot on pretty much any grounds imaginable. Significantly, the candidates themselves are virtually invisible in Recount, appearing primarily in archival footage or in very brief exchanges, as when Gore retracts his concession, by phone, to Bush. Given the context of the film, I think it would have been somewhat difficult to “personify” either of the two candidates using actors, but the primary effect is to distance the candidates themselves from the chain of events that eventually led to the Bush presidency, as if Bush and Gore have less control over the outcome than the insiders who ran the campaigns, submitted the lawsuits, or in Katherine Harris’s case, started and stopped the recounts, often in seemingly arbitrary ways, although Harris, as played by Laura Dern, seems less in control than a pawn caught up in a larger Republican system. And I think that’s one of the great strengths of Recount: the recognition that the candidates were both somehow more and less than the public images that represent their campaigns.
But the focus on the political insiders neglects, to some extent, the role of the press in fostering this crisis, and in many cases, operating to support the legitimacy of the Bush presidency (something, again, that Alterman documents as well as anyone). Instead, television news seemed to exist on a separate domain from the political insiders, reflecting the chaos rather than contributing to it. We get several shots of Klain, Whouley, Baker, and David Boies (played by electrical car pioneer, Ed Begley, Jr.) watching events unfold on television, sometimes out of their control, but just as often the result of hastily written memos and press releases they had sent out hours earlier. In that regard, the journalists covering the recount are seen as more or less autonomous from the political machines that run the election, rather than part of a larger cultural and political system. And, again, Recount seems to imply that Baker gamed the system better than William Christopher (John Hurt, whose performance Christopher has criticized). Again, by creating such clearly defined villains–Republicans even wear dark suits while Dems wear beige and light blue dress shirts–Recount stops short of really following through on a deeper political critique, implying, as Fuchs points out, that had both sides “played fair,” things would have basically been alright.
Given the political subject matter, it’s tempting to compare Recount with another political thriller, All the President’s Men, and I think that comparison works, especially given that President’s Men seems to serve a similar ideological purpose. While there may be a few bad apples, the system eventually works. Deep Throat leaks the truth to Woodward and Bernstein, and Nixon’s crimes are revealed. Recount exposes the nature and depth of voter disenfranchisement in Florida, and we the people hold our elected officials accountable and throw the bums out, as “we” began to do in 2006. But there’s something a little more unsettling about Recount–and it’s not just the film’s score that eerily reminded me of the music in Coppola’s The Conversation. Instead, it’s the whole contingency of Bush’s election and how close we might have come to four or even eight years of a Gore presidency, something many of us have no doubt fantasized about. Recount alludes to this contingency briefly at the end of the film when Klain and Whouley lament the many variables that might have changed Florida’s results (the butterfly ballot, the Nader campaign). But as Fuchs points out, the film is forced to stop well short of pushing these questions to their logical conclusion about some of the more “entrenched problems” facing the processes by which elections are conducted. In this regard, I do wish that Recount had been a little more daring, but as political theater, it is a fascinating if incredibly bumpy ride.
Cross-posted at Newcritics.