Recount, a 2008 television film directed by Jay Roach, explores the behind-the-scenes political maneuvering that ultimately allowed George W. Bush to defeat Al Gore in the state of Florida in 2000, and by extension, become President of the United States. Roach’s film, a largely even-handed affair, manages to make even the most complicated political discussions riveting.
The film stars Kevin Spacey as Ron Klain, former Chief of Staff to Vice President Al Gore and a senior member of his campaign. He works closely with Michael Whouley (Dennis Leary), a senior strategist for the Gore campaign. The film begins just prior to the election, as both men are trying to ensure a victory for their candidate, though the polls suggest the race is a toss-up. When Gore appears to lose the election, he calls Bush to concede, but Whouley later discovers that the vote totals are close enough to ask for a recount, which might find additional votes cast for Gore.
The Gore campaign brings in Warren Christopher (John Hurt) to lead the recount effort. Christopher, who is portrayed as antiquated and naïve, believes that the campaign will be able to reach some kind of agreement that will help Gore through diplomacy and compromise with the Bush campaign (Christopher has objected to this portrayal). The campaign is also aided in court by David Boies (Ed Begley, Jr.). Though Begley is one of the most gifted physical comedians alive, he plays Boies relatively straight, aside from some overly bushy eyebrows. However, he always seems to have a messy ice cream cone in hand that threatens to drip all over the place.
The Bush recount campaign, led by former US Secretary of State James Baker (Tom Wilkinson) and Ben Ginsberg (Bob Balaban), has a completely different strategy: do whatever it takes to win the election. Where the Gore campaign traffics in half-steps and missteps, the Bush campaign aggressively uses every strategy at their disposal, even if it requires them to harass county officials to prevent votes from being counted. Assisting the Bush team is Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, played by a superb Laura Dern. Harris is supposed to avoid coordinating with either campaign, but she nonetheless allows lobbyists for the Bush campaign to dictate her every move. Dern’s performance is hilarious, but that’s partly because she’s working with such great material. Harris was known for her garish makeup and cockeyed smile, which Dern replicates with little embellishment.
Recount is filled with inside baseball conversations, but it’s neither too confusing nor dumbed-down, thanks to Danny Strong’s supple screenplay. Roach shoots the film with hand-held cameras, which gives the movie a documentary feel and a sense of veracity. There are some moments that ring false, however. A discussion of hanging chads proceeds as if everyone involved is already familiar with the concept, even though it was likely the first time anyone had heard of such a thing. The film also uses voice actors to portray Al Gore and George W. Bush, and their performances account to little more than caricature. It would have been wiser to cast well-known actors who would avoid merely doing impressions.
But despite those minor flaws, Recount is remarkable for how it anticipated much of the political climate of Barack Obama’s presidency, even though it was released months before he was even elected. The Bush campaign in Recount is willing to do whatever it take to get their man elected, no matter how unethical. They even send campaign members to pose as private citizens and protest outside offices where votes are being recounted. The strategies foreshadow the cabal of Republicans who met the night of Obama’s election to brainstorm how to ensure that his presidency was unsuccessful. There’s also a chilling moment when plainclothes Bush protesters shout “No justice, no peace!” while trying to intimidate election officials. The slogan has been adopted in recent years by Black Lives Matter protesters to fight injustices committed against African Americans. The great irony is that the people shouting the slogan in Recount are actively trying to prevent the votes of African Americans from being properly counted.
Although Begley and Dern are responsible for the funniest moments of Recount, the performances are consistently strong, particularly Spacey’s. His version of Klain is initially reserved, but as the recount progresses, he becomes animated with a fury at the perceived misdeeds of the Bush campaign. He becomes an obsessed man who wants to explore every possible legal avenue even after it becomes clear that Gore has finally lost.
The film ends on a shot of Klain in a meeting at his new lobbying firm. He’s sitting in front of a Jackson Pollack drip painting, which seems to represent the complete chaos that came to define the month and a half of the recount effort. In 2008, Recount was a look back at a time of uncertainty that almost led to a constitutional crisis. In 2016, when Donald Trump is already suggesting that the system is rigged against him, we may be facing an even larger crisis.