It is eerie watching Recount, the new TV film about the Bush campaign’s hijacking of democracy in Florida in 2000. The nightmare I watched on cable with my mouth hanging open in amazement for five long weeks as the Bushies committed election theft in slow motion and in broad daylight flies by in two hours on HBO. It has its moments, but it is the kind of Hollywood recent-history epic that tries to play it right down the middle. The Republican thugs who gleefully got Junior installed don’t deserve to be treated so well.
Not that the Bushies don’t look bad – they do. As portrayed in the film, the Republicans immediately saw the battle as political and pulled out all the stops to use every one of their Bush-friendly Florida resources to put the fix in. By the time they brought in the Silver Hammer – Bush family fixer James Baker – they had already locked down every law firm in Florida and, combined with the brother-governor, the legislature and the extremely needy Katherine Harris, it was over before it started. The Democrats, for some reason playing with a bunch of second-stringers – what, did Jeb shut down the airports too? – took the high road, looking for the diplomatic concessions they would have easily allowed if the tables were turned. The Republicans who supported the film (James Baker even hosted a screening) probably think it makes them look brilliant because of their brutal manipulation of the law, the facts and the politics. That’s how they roll, I guess, but they are wrong. The crisis in Florida called for the GOP to call up their better natures and do what was best for the country. As I suspected and as we know now far too well, they don’t have them.
As entertainment, the movie tries to have it three different ways and succeeds and fails in equal measure. 1) It wants to build suspense, but we all know the ending and most of the ugly details how it got there. Besides, the facts are so ridiculous, no one would believe it if it were fiction. 2) It wants to be respectable historically, but, although the main character is on the Democratic side, it fails to bring home the true Dark Side of the Republicans as they shut down the democratic process. And 3) it wants to show how smart it is by dropping little bomblets even recount connoisseurs may be unaware of, such as Bush shill Ben Ginsberg’s pathetic whining about Democrats "stealing elections". It is emblematic of the movie’s failings that his comments are not drenched in irony.
The actors involved are some of the best talents working, but the casting suffers from dominant personalities that often overwhelm their subjects and some mismatches. At this point in his career, Kevin Spacey is always Kevin Spacey; just like Jimmy Stewart was always Jimmy Stewart and Jack Lemmon was always Jack Lemmon. He could no more be believed as real-guy Ron Klain than Gary Cooper was Lou Gehrig. Same with Dennis Leary, who plays some other real guy with a weird Southern/Eastern accent, but is always his own smart-ass self. Tom Wilkinson, who was all over HBO a couple of months ago as a hilariously debauched Ben Franklin, plays James Baker as the center of the Republican universe, which gives the real-life line-reading thug a bit too much credit. (Karl Rove, who probably had more to do with the Bushies’ scorched-earth tactics in Florida as anyone else, gets only one mention in the film, when someone says he wants Al Gore’s house picketed. Wilkinson/Baker is more than happy to oblige.) John Hurt is even more of a waste than he plays Warren Christopher to be and the washed-up Ed Begley, Jr. can’t do justice to Gore lawyer David Boies, who kicked legal ass as best he could, with the deck stacked high against him.
And then there is Laura Dern as Katherine Harris, who has received universal and well-deserved praise for her dead-on, over-the-top portrayal. As a result, Harris comes out looking the worst in all this and she deserves almost all of it. But Dern is the only one in the whole picture that is allowed to tell the truth about her character. For a movie that is at least partially a product of Hollywood-style political compromise, it appears that even Republicans agreed that it was OK to hold Harris up to dramatic ridicule. Even Wilkinson/Baker, seeing her on TV, scoffs at her mere existence. I suppose it is not surprising that, in a self-serving story about greedy, power-mad men, it is the one woman in the room who bears the mark of the buffoon.
Sure, Harris was an easy target – the only thing that you can criticize about Dern’s performance is that she wasn’t weird enough – but why stop there? Recount would have been so much more of an artistic triumph if it didn’t play it so damn safe; if all of the characters were painted in broad caricatures. Get someone to play Baker like the smarmy back-room Bush-enabler he is – maybe James Cromwell. Let’s see those punk kids who shut down the counting in Miami-Dade the day before, as they left their congressional staffing offices in Washington and got on the Enron plane headed for Florida. How about digging into the dark world of the Bush legal team – I can see Nicholson as Scalia. Every close-up of someone in the Bush war room should be accompanied by bad-guy music. Every gathering of the naive Democrats should be preceded by something suitably naive and uplifting, like "I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke".
Well, maybe someday someone will make that movie. In the meantime, as a homogenized history lesson, Recount does just fine. This was the first grown-up adult talking-head movie my 13-year-old son has managed to sit through, and he seemed to get a lot out of it. After the first half-hour, he stopped asking me if this or that "really happened" and I had to dig up some YouTube videos to show him how good Dern had nailed the real Katherine Harris. After it was over, he announced that the bloodless Bush coup had landed on his top five outrageous things that happened in his lifetime, up there with the Iraq War, the Bush presidency generally, 9/11 and – I forget – maybe the Favre retirement (he reminds me in the comments below - it was Katrina).
When I was his age in 1968, I was living through the height of Vietnam/LBJ/Bobby-Martin/Nixon madness. It was an edgier time to be sure, but today is no less an essential moment in time. I can’t blame him for wanting hope, change and competence – something sorely missing from his national government during the politically-conscious part of his lifetime. Living through and understanding the worst prepares us to fight for better.
The circumstances in Recount were, as it turns out, the perfect start to the Bush presidency, which never stopped acting as if its rule were a result of providence and divine entitlement. With a wide swath of devastation in their wake, the Bushies will get what they deserve eventually – in the history books, at least. You can say we won’t get fooled again but, as Recount makes clear, not enough of us were fooled in the first place for this band of reckless bandits to assume power by one vote in the Supreme Court.