Bush vs. Gore, one more time

Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- When screenwriter Danny Strong started interviewing the protagonists of the 2000 presidential recount two years ago for his HBO movie on the subject, Ron Klain had one request.

"I told him that my only real interest in this film is if you tell me it's going to have a different ending," said Klain, who was then-Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore's senior legal advisor in Florida.

But Strong was not interested in rewriting history. He conceived of "Recount," which premieres Sunday on HBO, as a dramatic retelling of the 36-day legal battle between Gore and his Republican opponent, George W. Bush, through the varied perspectives of the players in both camps. The movie would not take sides; it would hew to the historical record.

"The film is not about who should have won," said Strong. "This movie is about our electoral process and gives us an intimate look at how this process went down in one particular state. And then it sort of asks the American people: Is this how you want to elect a president?"

But making an even-handed depiction of such a polarizing chapter in U.S. history is no easy task, particularly when it's debuting in the midst of a frenzied political season. So it's no surprise that "Recount" has already drawn complaints about distortions from some of those represented on-screen, including former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who was a top Gore advisor.

In defending the movie's accuracy, HBO has touted the amount of research that went into its making. Strong interviewed 40 people who were directly involved in the complex legal fight, and he relied heavily on four books about the recount penned by journalists. The authors -- the New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin, Newsweek's David A. Kaplan, Time's David Von Drehle and ABC News' Jake Tapper -- were all consultants on the film.

"We wanted to make this feel as authentic as possible and rooted in the best journalism that we could," said Colin Callendar, head of HBO Films.

But the movie also relies heavily on dramatization, blending factual events with fictional dialogue and scenes. The person perhaps most ambivalent about its approach is Klain -- played by Kevin Spacey as a once-exiled aide who fights vigorously to keep Gore's chances alive.

"It does a really powerful job of capturing the feel of the 36 days and the insanity of it all," Klain said, noting that in the nearly eight years since, "no one has succeeded in bringing this to a mass audience in an accessible way. I think that's a very important thing to do."

Still, Klain, now general counsel for a private investment firm, said the movie overemphasizes his role. And he cautioned that it should not be viewed as a journalistic enterprise. "If people watch the film and think this is the complete story of what had happened, they're going to be missing a lot," he said. "A lot of really complex and nuanced debates we had about strategy ended up getting oversimplified into 10-second conversations.

"It's a film," he added. "Not a history book."

Director Jay Roach said he's not under any illusion that the movie will be viewed as the definitive take on the recount.

"We just tried to be fair and to capture the essence of the truth," said Roach, who has directed such comedy blockbusters as "Meet the Parents" and the "Austin Powers" series. "You can't tell the whole story of the recount, of thousands of people over 30 days. But we thought if the audience saw we were diligent, they couldn't dismiss it, no matter what side they were on."

Indeed, Spacey said he believes the movie's sensibilities will surprise viewers.

"Rather than what people might expect, which is that it's some sort of political polemic or boring history film, it's actually more of a thriller," he said.

If the 2000 recount -- a confounding mess of undervotes, hanging chads and vague election laws -- seems unlikely material for a cinematic drama, then the origin of the film is even more improbable.

The movie sprang from an unexpected source: Strong is an actor best known for his roles on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Gilmore Girls." An aspiring screenwriter who had written several unsold comedies, Strong was inspired to try something different after seeing David Hare's play "Stuff Happens," which traces the buildup to the war in Iraq.

In crafting the script, he relied heavily on public documents and interviews with the key players. But Strong noted that he wrote "95% of the dialogue" and concocted scenes for dramatic effect. (An encounter on an airport tarmac between Klain and former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, played by Tom Wilkinson, never happened, for example.)

"We feel that the film is accurate, but we're very clear to say that it's a movie. It's not a documentary," Strong said.

Still, Klain was so uneasy about the approach that he suggested the filmmakers create fictional characters instead of using the names of real people, a notion they rejected as unrealistic. He's most bothered by a scene in which his character, at a low point for the Democrats, tells field director Michael Whouley (played by Denis Leary): "I'm not even sure I like Al Gore."

"I didn't say it and I do like Al Gore," Klain said. "Obviously, I'm not thrilled to see it in the movie. But I hope the point that scene makes is that we were in Florida fighting for something bigger than our loyalty to one person. We were fighting for the principle of every vote counting."

The dramatization particularly rankles Christopher, who was Gore's emissary in Florida during the early days of the recount. He has not seen the film, but he read transcripts of scenes featuring his character, who is portrayed as a high-minded but naive statesman.

In one scene, Christopher, played by John Hurt, suggests to Baker -- who was spearheading Bush's Florida legal team -- that they try to resolve the recount through "diplomacy and compromise."

"That's absurd," Christoper said in an interview. "Both Baker and I knew this would be a fight to the end that only one side could win."

(Baker agreed that the film exaggerated his rival's stance: "He's not that much of a wuss.")

For Christopher, "Recount" is part of a troubling trend of docudramas purporting to be historical documents. "They're publicized in a way that indicates they're based on exhaustive research of the record, but they're in fact written in a way that produces drama, rather than an accurate version of history," he said.

Strong interviewed Christopher just once, after production on the movie had begun, and he did not send him a copy of the script to review, as he did Klain and Baker. But he defended his depiction, saying it was largely based on Toobin's book "Too Close to Call."

"I think what makes Warren Christopher such a national treasure is what made him the wrong guy for the Florida recount," the screenwriter said.

In an unexpected twist, top Bush campaign officials have given the movie largely good reviews, despite its pedigree. (Strong and Roach are both Democrats, as are many of the leading actors.)

"It's a really intelligent, really well-done movie about a complicated subject," said Ben Ginsberg, who was national counsel for Bush's 2000 campaign and who is played by Bob Balaban in the movie.

"They very much made a decision to tell the story from the Democratic point of view and their characters are more developed than the Republican characters. But having said that, they treated virtually all of us very fairly."

Baker has some quibbles with the film, including the fact that it omits the first time the U.S. Supreme Court took up the recount. Still, the former secretary of State is hosting a screening of "Recount" at his public policy institute in Houston on Tuesday as part of a forum on electoral reform.

"It's a fair rendition of what happened, but it's a Hollywood rendition," Baker said.

"There was a lot in there that he has me say that didn't happen. But look, it's a movie."

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matea.gold@latimes.com

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