Categories
2 Stars Movies

The plural of chad is chad in HBO’s Recount

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 blogger: 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.

Laura Dern in Recount
Laura Dern as Katherine Harris during her 15 minutes of fame

Like Oliver Stone’s W., 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.

Recount
Kevin 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.

Categories
3 Stars TV

Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney are the second first couple in Tom Hooper’s John Adams

This blog celebrates Independence Day 2008 in a New York City Starbucks, tapping out a review of the HBO miniseries John Adams. Believe it or not, the timing is accidental, but July 4th has proven to be an auspicious date in American History. On-and-off-again friends and foes Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both died on the same date, exactly 50 years after the ratification of what they called The Declaration of Independency. The tale sounds too good to be true, and yet it is.

HBO is back on its game at last, after a period of apparent dormancy following the natural conclusion of flagship original programs Sex and the City and The Sopranos, the premature cancellation of Deadwood and Rome, and the criminal abbreviation of the final season of The Best Television Show Ever Made (sometimes referred to as The Wire). Finely pedigreed, this lavish, over seven-hour miniseries by history buff Tom Hanks’ production company Playtone is based on the biography by David McCullough. However, it fails to reach the epic profundity of The Wire and Deadwood, which in the opinion of this blogger, possibly have more to say about the true nature of the America we have actually inherited from Adams and his contemporaries.

John Adams
America’s second first couple

This blogger does not consider himself a patriot in the flag-waving sense of the word, and is not especially moved by stories of early American history. However, the dramatization of these legendary events and the characterization of dusty old American heroes were intriguing enough to make me consider picking up a copy of McCullough’s tome. The adult life of John Adams encompassed such elementary school social studies touchstones as the Revolutionary War, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution. In short, Adams was not only present during many of the key points in early American history, but a crucial participant. Nevertheless, history has chosen other heroes. As Adams was a statesman and not a military man, and indeed spent most of the Revolutionary War on a frustrating mission abroad in Europe, we don’t see reenactments of such key events as the Boston Tea Party, which one might have expected of a lavish big-budget HBO production. It makes sense, but there is unintentional comedy when a character remarks “Boy, how ’bout that Boston Tea Party last night, huh?” (OK, I admit I’m paraphrasing, but the effect is the same.)

After the Revolutionary War (waged in part by “godless Hessian mercenaries,” including one of my ancestors, Johannes Schwalm), Adams returned to the States United only to be turned right back around for his appointment to the impossible, thankless job of ambassador to former mortal enemy Great Britain. There’s a brilliantly tense scene in which Adams meets the slightly odd but clearly seething King George III for the first time. When Adams finally came home for good, he suffered persistent criticism at having been safe and coddled in Europe throughout the turmoil at home (it also seems his weight was a favorite talking point of the newspapers). But the miniseries makes clear that the biggest sacrifice made for his duty was the effects of his absence on his family. He loses a son to alcoholism and a son-in-law to naive investments, but on the other hand, his son John Quincy Adams succeeded him as the sixth president.

John Adams
If I had a dollar…

As the second president of the States United, Adams and his veep Jefferson both had the same aims: avoid war between France and England at all costs. Adams was stuck in the peculiarly ironic position of having a truce with Britain and antipathy with France, the exact opposite of the nation’s situation during the Revolutionary War. His administration grappled for the first time with many issues that still resonate today, including the concepts of freedom of speech, a deliberate national deficit (as espoused by Alexander Hamilton), and so-called “enemy combatants” (which were, at the time, specifically understood to be French refugees suspected of remaining loyal to an enemy monarchy). Adams reluctantly supported the Alien and Sedition Acts, not because he believed in them (he didn’t) but that he nobly felt it was his duty to stand behind the wishes of the people’s representatives in Congress. During his administration, he and Abigail moved into the partially completed White House, which is shown to have been built by slaves. This blogger should perhaps not have been surprised by this revelation, and yet he was.

The cast is a veritable showcase for “Hey It’s That Guy”s, providing substantial roles for a parade of familiar character actors — not least headliner Paul Giamatti. In many ways, Thomas Jefferson (Stephen Dillane) is the most interesting, and surprising characterization. As portrayed here, he kept his own council and was somewhat shy, far from the loquacious and commanding personalities of many of his contemporaries. Adams, however, correctly perceived the quiet man’s powerful opinions about independence, and drafted him to write the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson could also be proud, and his effrontery is priceless as Benjamin Franklin (Tom Wilkinson) quickly produces a red pen to make amendments. Franklin was one of a kind, and indisputably brilliant, but a massive egotist and hedonist. He was technically correct about how to effectively operate as ambassador to France, but it didn’t stop him from selfishly enjoying his job. He gamely played the role of “rustic” in coonskin cap, took mistresses (although Wikipedia does point out he was a widower at the time), lived a life of leisure, and knew when not to discuss politics (which was: most of the time). Originally a friend and ally to Adams, Franklin became an antagonist in France, and Adams appears never to have forgiven him.

John Adams
America’s First Rascal shows John around his crib

George Washington (David Morse) is portrayed as gruff and humbly diplomatic, but also quite intelligent and perceptive, not to mention physically imposing. He was such a popular hero after the Revolution that his inauguration was a forgone conclusion, but it was later alleged John Adams would have actually won the electoral college vote without a conspiracy to anoint Washington as America’s first hero. John’s cousin Samuel Adams (Danny Huston) figures significantly in the Early Continental Congress, and now we can finally see what Sam did to deserve having such a beverage named after him (I kid; actually he really was a brewer on top of all his other achievements). One interesting figure this blogger had never heard of was John Dickinson (Zelijko Ivanek). As the representative from Pennsylvania, Dickinson argued passionately against splitting from Britain, and correctly foresaw the Civil War as an inevitable result. And finally, there’s a plum role for Laura Linney as Abigail Adams, about as strong a woman as she could have been at the time. At one point, we see her scrubbing the floor with no motion to help from her husband. But clearly it was not just lip service when John Adams late in life claims Abigail was his most trusted advisor.

John Adams
I apologize for failing to mention Sarah Polley in this article

In a great scene near the end, an aged Adams dresses down John Trumbull, the painter of “The Declaration of Independence” (now residing in the Capitol building – which was, incidentally, also built by slaves), for historical inaccuracies. Ironically, the scene is an invention, according to Wikipedia, but it seems to have been consistent with Adams’ beliefs and preoccupations. In his retirement, he was concerned that the story of the American Revolution and his own reputation would (or even could) be reported accurately. He predicted a romanticized version in which future Americans would believe “Franklin smote the earth with his electrical rod and out came Washington and Jefferson.” It seems he may have been correct; Franklin and Jefferson are heroes to this day, while he remains relatively obscure. It is true that there isn’t much scandal or legend about his character and personality for schoolchildren to latch on to. Jefferson had Monticello and his inventions, and Franklin had his aphorisms and, well, inventions of his own. One other reason Adams is not exactly a popular hero is that he first made himself known for defending English soldiers accused of perpetuating an unprovoked massacre. The defense attorney was never a much-loved profession, but set an early precedent for lawyers becoming presidents.

Finally, two smaller observations: The miniseries was partially filmed in Colonial Williamsburg, but many other locations were realized with superlative special effects. Beyond the obvious recreations of old Boston and Philadelphia, the DVD bonus features reveal that certain shots I never questioned, such as Adams ascending the staircase to a impressive European mansion, were in fact part CG. Also of interest are the examples of the medicine of the day: exsanguination, inoculation, and mastectomy, all without anesthesia.

Categories
4 Stars Movies

Go behind the scenes of “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter” in Shakespeare in Love

This humble blogger is not ashamed to admit being in love with Shakespeare in Love, and not just for the generous displays of Gwyneth Paltrow’s lovely young bubbies.

Full of American actors affecting English accents with varying degrees of outrageousness, it only partly qualifies as Europudding, and is in fact more in the vein of “let’s put on a show!” theater farces like Noises Off and Waiting for Guffman. Director John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love succeeds beautifully, but the formula is not ironclad; Becoming Jane obviously attempted the same stunt by warping the biographical details of Jane Austin’s life onto her novels, but rather failed to capture her dry wit and particular brand of practical passion.

Shakespeare in Love
Oi, get yer bubbies out!

Co-screenwriter Tom Stoppard, already an expert at playing fast and loose with Shakespeare in his play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, lays more than a few easter eggs for English majors and other enthusiasts of Elizabethan drama. Bloody playwright John Webster cameos as a disturbed young lad. Many favorite Shakespeare clich├ęs appear not just in the play-within-the-movie, but also in the body of the movie itself: ghosts, cross-cross-dressing, and a “bit with a dog.” But perhaps the movie’s biggest achievement is to humanize perhaps the most revered writer in the English language, and yet still illuminate the unmatched passion and achievement of his work. A Shakespeare beset with writer’s block struggles to find a hook for the unwritten “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter” reminds us that he was probably no unearthly creature taking dictation from beyond, and that creating such art was, simply, hard work.

Shakespeare in Love
Judi Dench in full Queen Bitch mode

Shakespeare in Love thankfully doesn’t let historical accuracy get in the way of a good gag. Will makes weekly visits to an apothecary practicing psychotherapy a few hundred years early. The contemporary theater world is shown more than once as a precursor to today’s movie biz. In order to bankroll the production of a new play, financier/kneecapper Hugh Fennyman (Tom Wilkinson) suggests Globe Theater owner Philip Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush) pay actors with a portion of the profits, when of course there never are any. Brilliant! One wonders if Miramax honchos Harvey & Bob Weinstein perceived the irony.

But the movie is sometimes more accurate than one might think for something that is admittedly a slightly fluffy farce. For example, it is in fact plausible for Shakespeare to fear he may have been indirectly responsible for rival playwright Christopher Marlowe’s death. Marlowe died in 1593, which according to the all-knowing Wikipedia, was about the time Romeo and Juliet was written.

Categories
4 Stars Movies

Michael Clayton confronts Shiva the God of Death

Michael Clayton is a that rare thing: an intelligent, fictional thriller for grownups. Like any self-respecting Thriller for Grownups, it’s relentlessly grim in tone, the chronology is fractured, and a high level of detail demands your attention. It doesn’t approach impenetrability like Syriana, but it unfortunately doesn’t engage the brain as much as a good puzzler could. Everything is spelled out for the viewer in the end, except for a few niggling logistical questions. (Such as, why would two expert assassins opt for something so messily conspicuous as a car bomb?)

Michael Clayton has all the whiff of being based on a true story, but is in fact a wholly original work from writer/director Tony Gilroy – his first film as director after a successful run of screenplays including the Jason Bourne trilogy. George Clooney carries the film with the complex, compromised title character, and Oscar winner Tilda Swinton sweats convincingly as a dying-inside corporate executioner. But in my mind the real star is Tom Wilkinson.