HBO's Recount: Hanging Chads, Black Humor

You didn't expect a movie retelling the dimpled and hanging chad fiasco that was Bush vs. Gore to be fair and balanced, did you?

Turns out Recount, the new HBO movie debuting at 9 p.m. EST Sunday night (May 25) may be about as impartial as any such film made at this time could be.

Director Jay Roach of Austin Powers fame, teaming with first-time screenwriter Danny Strong, let both sides slug it out, score points, and emerge with much of their dignity intact.

Still, it's clear who the good guys are from the opening scenes, and two major characters might as well strut across the screen with "kick me" signs pasted on their backs.

Viewed as a straight drama without ideological blinders, Recount is a hoot, a smartly paced film adroitly acted and draped with black humor.

The film follows Ron Klain (Kevin Spacey), Vice President Al Gore's ex-chief of staff, who commandeers the political fight when the 2000 presidential race remains too close to call well into election night.

We all remember what happened next. Both sides trotted out every legal argument they could find to buttress their case, while the media worked itself into a tizzy with talk of butterfly ballots and voter suppression. Meanwhile, the next leader of the free world remained undecided.

Klain worked initially under former Secretary of State Warren Christopher (John Hurt), depicted here as having less vertebrae than Neville Chamberlain. The gentlemanly Christopher is no match for his GOP opponent, former Secretary of State James Baker (the great Tom Wilkinson). Baker wisely realizes he's in the middle of a street fight, not a polite conversation about Constitutional ethics.

Both the real Warren Christopher and James Baker contend the film's portrayal of the former is hopelessly untrue, but modern docudramas routinely alienate their sources. Just recall the Clinton administration's vociferous objections to ABC's The Path to 9/11.

Eventually, Christopher leaves the battlefield and it's up to Klain and company to make sure every vote gets recounted -- except military ballots lacking the proper postage markings.

Meanwhile, the Bush forces are led by Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris (Laura Dern, a ghoulishly accurate doppelganger). If Christopher is portrayed as a wimp, then Harris is an over-the-top harpy who cares more about her eyeliner than following the letter of the law.

The back-and-forth battle might get exhausting in less competent hands, but there's always a new fact, a new legal wrinkle to keep us engaged. Strong's script expertly weaves the major facts of the case into the narrative, and we rarely get those wince-inducing moments too common to historical dramas cooked up quickly for a ratings grab. It's smart that HBO waited this long before rolling out Recount.

Actual news clips from the era find their way into the film, lending the production another layer of gravitas -- and reminding us just how daffy Dan Rather sounded that election night. But it's hardly necessary. Spacey's quiet performance reminds us why he's got two Oscars to his credit, and even the secondary players like Denis Leary and Ed Begley Jr. make their characters register despite modest screen time.

Recount hits hardest at the wildly ineffective voting process on the ground in Florida. The punch card system all but begged for this kind of predicament, and having dozens of counties all adhering to different voting standards only added to the madness.

The film doesn't badger us with these comic elements. It doesn't have to. The real story is so good it plays out like the best Hollywood fiction. Recount merely takes that raw material and introduces us to the real people behind the historic tug of war.

Bias hunters will point to a number of reasons to find fault with Recount, from Harris' portrayal to how the GOP demonstrations are shown to be as manufactured as the Democratic ones are genuine. And while the film follows the story right through the vice president's concession speech, it's more than hinted at that had a full recount taken place, history might have been much different.

Viewers may expect the underdog treatment afforded to Klain's character, but they likely won't predict the sense of healing that wraps the presentation.

Ultimately, Recount is a rigorously enjoyable farce, a tale of an election where nearly everything that could go wrong did. And yet the country survived. In fact, there's something positive about the film once the smoke clears. It's unlikely that both sides would be as civilized today as they were eight years ago, and numerous scenes depict a genuine sense of appreciation felt by the combatants.

Hands are shaken, concession speeches get made, and life goes on.

Let's hope the upcoming election ends in a similarly civilized fashion.