THE BLOG
05/01/2008 02:40 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

HBO's Recount Rave

Last night I finally saw Recount (HBO, debuting 5.25), and I feel no hesitancy whatsoever in calling it totally crackerjack -- a throughly engaging, first-rate political drama that gets you off. It's also fair to use the word "brilliant" as it's no small feat to make a gripping film that's mostly about a bunch of middle-aged political operatives bickering and maneuvering over vote counts, media statements, lawsuits, court decisions, dimpled chads and all that jazz. But director Jay Roach and first-time screenwriter Danny Strong have pulled it off.

This despite the fact that in a flash-forward sense it's telling an essentially grim tale about how the George Bush forces managed to finagle things in their favor at the end of this fight. The result was that they took this country into economic ruin and international disrepute over the following eight years, a situation which ultimately led to my gassing up last night at the corner of Beverly and La Cienega and having to pay $53 dollars...good God!

You might presume that an HBO drama about the "street fight" (as it was apparently called by senior Bush operative James Baker) over the Florida returns in the wake of the 2000 presidential election might be a little too inside-baseball for most people. Well, maybe some will say that. But it struck me as brisk, engaging, dryly humorous and never less than gripping. It's very specific in a political-junkie sense, but it gets into this realm with such verve that it's impossible not to be affected in a contact-high sense.

That was my reaction, at least. It kept reminding me of Zodiac in its eagerness to burrow into detail and make that detail be the whole thing -- the spring from which all meaning flows.

If Recount was a theatrical film I would definitely have it down as one of the year's best so far. This kind of movie has been abandoned by producers of theatrical fare, of course. Moviegoing tastes have dumbed down to the point where putting a film of this type into the plexes would be seen as borderline suicidal.

It's one of those no-frills historical recreation pieces in the vein of '03's The Pentagon Papers or '79's Blind Ambition with a little Primary Colors attitude and some of the biting political satire that I remember from Michael Ritchie's The Candidate.

Recount seems to pass along a good portion of the truth -- it doesn't seem to pussyfoot around in dramatizing what really happened -- but it doesn't feel to me as if Roach and Strong are totally in the tank for the Democrats. The Republicans (except, to be fair, in the case of Laura Dern's hilarious portrayal of former Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris) are, it seems to me, honestly recreated and dramatized.

Recount is chock full of delicious performances. At the top of the list is Kevin Spacey's portrayal of Democratic operative and longtime Gore staffer Ron Klain (easily his most sympathetic role since American Beauty), Tom Wilkinson's superb performance as Baker, Dern's Harris, Denis Leary's smartly engaging turn as Democratic strategist Michael Whouley, Ed Begley, Jr.'s very stirring inhabiting of Democratic attorney David Boies (i.e., the guy who argued the Gore case in front of the Supreme Court), and Bob Balaban's completely solid rendering of Republican operative Ben Ginsberg.

Not to put down the comedies, but for me this is the best thing Roach has ever directed. Some IMDB guy wrote that he "can't wait to see the first TV spot that says something along the lines of, 'A powerful political drama from the director of Meet the Parents and Austin Powers.'" But that's putting it corrrectly.

I can't see how this film won't be seen as having done serious damage to the reputation of former Secretary of State Warren Christopher -- and justifiably so if what it shows is accurate. After Recount gets seen and kicked around Christopher (portrayed by John Hurt) will be widely seen as the one of the great all-time wimps -- a seasoned diplomat who knew how to speak elegantly about the foundations of good government and high moral purpose, but who fundamentally and pathetically didn't get the fact that sometimes in life you need to fight and fight hard.

One of the small pleasures of watching Wilkinson's Baker is that at least he understands this. He's even given a little human dimension towards the end when he talks about how he became a Republican when Bush Sr. got him out of the dumps when his wife died by persuading him to work for him. It's a first-rate performance. Deserving of an Emmy nomination.

Katherine Harris will not be pleased by Dern's portrayal of her. Her life over the last eight years or so has been well reported and documented, and there's nothing in this film that hasn't been vetted. Nonetheless it's probably safe to say that her reputation has been sullied by this film for all time, and good riddance to that.

The only thing I miss is that dissenting opinion from Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens regarding Bush. vs. Gore: "Although we may never know with complete certainty the winner of this year's presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the nation's confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law."

96% of the people who write in about this are going to say "who cares?," "get over it!," "Bush won...stop whining" and so on. So I may as well respond to this in advance. Recount is not simplistic and one-sided by my sights. It doesn't suggest that George Bush really did win the election in terms of the popular vote in Florida and across the nation because he didn't. Nor does it say that the Supreme Court decision in his favor was totally impartial and unmotivated by political considerations.

You can put on the tap shoes and shilly-shally all you want, but if the entire state of Florida had been recounted, and if those Broward County fogies hadn't voted for Pat Buchanan by mistake, and if all those African-American Floridians hadn't been unfairly disqualified from voting, Al Gore would have been sworn in as president in 2001.