The 2008 HBO tele­vi­sion movie Recount dra­ma­tizes the trau­matic few weeks at the close of the 2000 Pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. That hec­tic time brings back three dis­tinct feel­ings for this Dork Reporter: bewil­der­ment at the found­ing fathers’ pur­pose for the Elec­toral Col­lege (as every­one no doubt remem­bers, it was never in doubt that Al Gore won the pop­u­lar vote), nau­sea at the Supreme Court and Bush Campaign’s abrupt cir­cum­ven­tion of our democ­racy, and finally, the sud­den omnipres­ence of my name: Chad (defined as “a piece of waste mate­r­ial cre­ated by punch­ing cards or tape”). I’ve heard all the jokes, but Recount was able to teach me one new fac­toid: the “plural of chad is chad.”

Although a thriller involv­ing pres­i­den­tial pol­i­tics, its tone is noth­ing like that of All the President’s Men; no least, every­thing takes place in sun­light and no one smokes. Direc­tor Jay Roach (yes, him, of the Austin Pow­ers movies) car­ries things along at a break­neck pace. This is how it prob­a­bly felt to those on the inside of the Florida hur­ri­cane (involv­ing even lit­tle a lit­tle boy from Cuba you might recall was named Elian Gon­za­les). But for a viewer, it feels like a 2-hour bar­rage of facts, fig­ures, and dra­matic recre­ations of key events. Per­haps unavoid­ably, much of the story is told through reams of his­tory and expo­si­tion placed into the char­ac­ters’ mouths.

RecountLaura Dern as Kather­ine Har­ris dur­ing her 15 min­utes of fame

Like Oliver Stone’s W. (read The Dork Report review), this drama­ti­za­tion of real events pro­vides ample oppor­tu­nity for famous actors to exer­cise their skills as imper­son­ators. Most notably, Laura Dern embod­ies Florida Sec­re­tary of State Kather­ine Har­ris in all her tacky glory. Har­ris is unflat­ter­ingly depicted as caught in over her head by cir­cum­stances. She is vain about her appear­ance, yet blind to how she is per­ceived. Baker orders the Repub­li­can lob­by­ist Mac Sti­panovich (Bruce McGill) to attach him­self to her, to cir­cum­vent laws that pro­hibit the admin­is­tra­tion from inter­fer­ing in Florida state mat­ters. It’s an easy task; using flat­tery, he implies Har­ris is in con­trol while he’s actu­ally feed­ing her direc­tives directly from the Bush campaign.

The early part of the film con­cerns the fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ence of approach between War­ren (“Chris”) Christo­pher (John Hurt) and James Baker (Tom Wilkin­son) — both actors affect­ing con­vinc­ing Amer­i­can accents. Christo­pher is a gen­tle­man of the old school, obe­di­ent to pro­pri­ety. Baker, on the other hand, is a ruth­less shark will­ing to play dirty. Christo­pher is forced to leave the effort due to fam­ily mat­ters, and the weight of respon­si­bil­ity falls upon pro­tag­o­nist Ron Klain (Kevin Spacey), Gen­eral Coun­sel for the Gore Campaign.

If true, here’s some­thing I didn’t know: one of the final nails in the cof­fin of the recount came from no less than Joe Lieber­man. In the ver­sion of events pre­sented by the film, Lieber­man directly inter­fered in the mat­ter of ques­tion­able absen­tee bal­lots filed by mil­i­tary ser­vice mem­bers. The Gore cam­paign argued that accord­ing to the Bush team’s own stan­dards, any improp­erly sub­mit­ted bal­lots shouldn’t be valid. Lieber­man ini­tially agreed with the tac­tic, then wimped out on national tele­vi­sion and spoke out against his own cam­paign, mak­ing it seem as if his own peo­ple were the ones stoop­ing to under­handed tac­tics to win.

RecountKevin Spacey and Denis Leary as Ron Klain and Michael Whouley

As a staunch Demo­c­rat still sim­mer­ing over what hap­pened eight years ago, Recount reads to me as very pro-Gore. But I’m curi­ous as to what Bush sup­port­ers think of the film. Does it look fair to them? I sup­pose they might look at Bush Cam­paign National Coun­sel Ben Gins­berg (Bob Bal­a­ban) and Baker and see two men doing every­thing they can to sup­port the can­di­date they believe legally won the elec­tion. But when Gins­berg is quoted sneer­ing at Democ­rats being will­ing to cheat and steal elec­tions, I wanted to find the real man and spit on his shoe.

Watch­ing this film brings back all my dis­gust at the real vil­lain, of course, The Supreme Court. The movie illus­trates the heart­break­ing catch-22: The Supreme Court paused the recount, caus­ing most Florida coun­ties to miss the dead­line, and then say­ing the recount could not con­tinue because the dead­line had passed. And then to rub it in, The Court stated that this par­tic­u­lar rul­ing applied to the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion only, and could not be applied to any future sce­nario. As Gore Cam­paign strate­gist Michael Whouley (Denis Leary) points out for the audi­ence, this is some­thing The Court had never done before in his­tory. I recall from the time that one the­ory was that the Court per­haps fan­cied were sav­ing the nation from a bru­tal blow to its foun­da­tions, in the same way that Ford did by par­don­ing Nixon in 1974. Regard­less, the whole sit­u­a­tion still smells eight years later.

The great tragedy is that the more the Gore cam­paign dug into the sys­tem, the more dirt they found. For instance, they uncover irrefutable evi­dence that thou­sands of legit­i­mate African Amer­i­can vot­ers were dis­en­fran­chised in Florida, but were pow­er­less to do any­thing about it except weakly hope that it wouldn’t hap­pen again next time. Now, in 2008, when racism mat­ters more than ever, let’s cer­tainly hope it doesn’t.

Offi­cial movie site:

Buy the DVD from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.


W. movie poster


I had the same issues with Oliver Stone’s W. that I do with every biopic. As vir­tu­ally every fea­ture film biog­ra­phy attempts to do the job of a book, they inevitably fall into the same trap: they become high­lights reels that merely illus­trate key moments in a real-life figure’s life, span­ning decades. With a few excep­tions (Amer­i­can Splen­dor, Con­trol), any nar­ra­tive through­line is impos­si­ble; mean­ing, there is no story. Stone attempts to tie together his frag­mented exam­i­na­tion of the life of George W. Bush with the theme of his rela­tion­ship with his father, George H.W. Bush. In this view, Junior both loved and hated his father, and both wanted to impress him and to pre­vail where he per­ceived that he failed (it’s clear now even to this staunch paci­fist and Demo­c­rat that Bush the elder was wise to not extend the first Gulf War into a nation­build­ing exer­cise in Iraq).

Oliver Stone W.Gen­tle­men! You can’t fight in here, this is the War Room!

Screen­writer Stan­ley Weiser chooses the con­cep­tion of the phrase “Axis of Evil” as the start­ing point, and ends the film with the infa­mous press con­fer­ence in which the arro­gant Bush was unable to name any mis­takes he may have made in office. Stone flashes back many times to Bush’s prior life as a trust fund wastrel, but skips almost every­thing that I would define as defin­ing moments: becom­ing a born again Chris­t­ian, decid­ing to run for pres­i­dent, announc­ing to his staff that they are going to war in Iraq (it’s a mat­ter of record Bush said “Fuck Sad­dam. We’re tak­ing him out.”) and of course, Sep­tem­ber 11 itself.

John Brolin in W.I’m George W. Bush, bitches!

The most obvi­ous fail­ure of biopics is that they typ­i­cally become oppor­tu­ni­ties for famous actors to do impres­sions of his­tor­i­cal fig­ures. In this case, the sub­jects are so fresh that many of them are still in office and on tele­vi­sion every night now, so the dan­ger is that W. could come too close to the easy satire of Sat­ur­day Night Live Week­end Update. That said, Josh Brolin is excel­lent as George W. Bush, in a per­for­mance that cap­tures many of the man’s pecu­liar tics but doesn’t come across as a forced car­i­ca­ture. Sim­i­larly, Richard Drey­fus is remark­ably restrained as Dick Cheney, a role that many other actors would have been tempted to use as an excuse to chew the Oval Office scenery. But unfor­tu­nately, Thandie New­ton (as Con­doleezza Rice) struck me as the only cast mem­ber doing a forced impression.

Offi­cial movie site:

Buy the DVD from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.