A movie about Florida's role in the 2000 presidential election may seem like a no-brainer -- Frantically plotting political camps! Hanging chads! Angry mobs! Katherine Harris! -- but it took more than a little creative courage to make "Recount," which premieres Sunday night on HBO. Like adapting "The Lord of the Rings," distilling an epic political battle into a coherent narrative is not as easy as you'd think, especially when events are still so fresh in everyone's mind. What occurred in Florida may well have been a watershed moment in American and world politics, but it was also a circus, coming down at times to terms as strange and downright silly as "dimpled chad." Which does not play as well on film as, say, a sword fight or even a political mole meeting a reporter in a dark and echoing parking garage.
There is a tension problem -- we know how it ends -- and also an audience problem -- those who voted for George W. Bush in 2000 are probably not interested in revisiting what many saw as an attempt by the Democrats to steal the election. Meanwhile, for those who voted for Vice President Al Gore (and for purposes of this review I acknowledge that I was one of them), the prospect of watching "Recount" may seem like a lesson in futility and frustration. Yes, Gore went on to win the Nobel and his "An Inconvenient Truth" documentary won an Oscar, but just imagine what would be different in this country if he had been president, and isn't it a little too soon to revisit such history-changing heartbreak?
No, it's not. Although its leads are not quite as much fun to look at (apologies to Kevin Spacey and Denis Leary), "Recount" may be the best political movie since "All the President's Men." With an outstanding cast and finely tuned script, "Recount" not only transcends all its potential problems, it also captures both the grim party politics, the strange collision of personalities and the obsessive heroics of a moment that was, for better or worse, unlike any other. Although it does occasionally require its characters to speak in stilted expository paragraphs just to keep viewers in the loop, it makes up for this by a seemingly miraculous ability to make news conferences exciting.
This doesn't mean Danny Strong's script is nonpartisan. The Republicans are surly, ruthless and smooth, a well-oiled machine led by James A. Baker III (Tom Wilkinson) determined to stop the recount at any cost, with no thought to fair play or even the law. When the high-minded Warren Christopher (John Hurt) is brought in, for example, Baker all but licks his chops; Christopher's ideals make him an easy mark for Baker's street-fight tactics. Katherine Harris, flayed brilliantly by Laura Dern, is not only as dippy and self-promoting behind the scenes as the then Florida secretary of state seemed in front of the cameras, she's also being directly advised by Republican operative Mac Stipanovich (Bruce McGill).
There are cursory attempts at balance, mainly the casting of Wilkinson, who radiates an almost genetic decency. His Baker, while ruthless and amoral, genuinely believes that Bush is the real victor. Bob Balaban's Ben Ginsberg is much more obviously odious, though he dutifully keeps up a running commentary about the voter irregularities in the Kennedy-Nixon race so we know there are grievances on both sides. But the heroes of "Recount" are the Democrats, namely Ron Klain (Kevin Spacey), who was Vice President Gore's former chief of staff, and Michael Whouley (Denis Leary), national field director of Gore's presidential campaign; Ed Begley Jr. comes in at the eleventh hour as David Boies, an attorney so formidable he even rattles Baker.
With all this talent on his side, you fully expect Gore to win this time; it's shocking when he doesn't, when we never are able to find out, as Klain demands so plaintively, "who won the damn thing." Spacey, with his round, amiable face and glittering eyes, is a perfect campaign operative, a man who lives in his head and on the phone, a man so thoroughly seduced by the terrible beauty of the political machine that a demotion, and the conciliatory crumb that follows it, is quickly forgotten in the chase to right what he sees as a terrible wrong. Exhausted by the constant thrusts and parries, the decisions and revisions, he wonders if he will even have a career after Florida. "I'm not even sure I like Al Gore," he confides in a bit of shared hysteria with Whouley.
But if the political machinations of the two camps fuel the narrative, "Recount" is not, in the end, about justice-seeking Democrats or scheming Republicans. It's about an electoral system at once so flawed and yet so intoxicated with itself that you cannot help but wonder not just who actually won the 2000 election but who actually won any of our presidential elections. The events in Florida exposed so many overlapping and often incomprehensible flaws in the voting process that it is impossible to list them all. From the schoolyard mentality of party politics to the inconsistent voting regulations, from the arbitrary design of ballots to the possible corruption of the polling places, it's impossible not to wonder whether every state should have had a recount.
The timing of the film could not be better. Not only is it an election year -- everyone please read your ballots carefully and ask questions if you don't understand the design! -- but the increasingly unpopular war in Iraq, the staggering economy and a general feeling of dissatisfaction lends a bitter poignancy to "Recount." Had this movie been pitched in the early days of the Bush administration or, impossibly, in the year or two following Sept. 11, it would have never gotten made. But now, figuring out who's to blame for these last eight years has become a national preoccupation, and the key players in Florida seem as good a place to start as any, especially since, as Strong's script makes clear, the election turned on the actions, and non-actions, of so few people.
That may be the most haunting message of "Recount" -- that the most important decision made in this country in 2000 was left up to a handful of pressured and/or partisan people in a few small rooms. And it's good to be reminded that this is not the way a presidential election in the United States of America is supposed to go down.
When: 9 to 11 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)