Hey, political junkies, now that you’ve watched one presidential-nominating race drag on long past the exhaustion point, let’s relive the last big commander-in-chief contest! Return with me, won’t you, to the thrilling days of prolonged-battle yesteryear, when the 2000 presidential election was prematurely called by a wafer-thin margin for one candidate, then challenged by the other, hurling the nation into 36 days of ideological turmoil over hanging chads and dimpled chads, undervotes and nonvotes, purged rolls and butterfly ballots, machine-versus-manual retabulating, theft accusations, party spin, Supreme Court intervention and one conservative woman’s liberal use of blusher.
The movie is HBO’s Recount, a docudrama of the fierce post–Election Day fight in Florida that determined whether George W. Bush or Al Gore would win the presidency of the United States. (Spoiler alert: The United States lost.) Written with an eye for telling detail by Danny Strong, and directed in surprisingly nimble fashion by blockbuster-comedy wrangler Jay Roach (of the Austin Powers movies and Meet the Parents fame), it has the peculiarly alchemic structure of a nail-biting tragi-farce. Minds both brilliant (Gore attorney David Boies) and eccentric (Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris), wills both energized and deflatable, and tactics both shrewd (the GOP hammering a “counted and recounted” message when that wasn’t the case) and misguided (the Dems asking for recounts in only four counties instead of statewide) were allowed to mix it up in what often felt like a surprise overtime campaign played without rule books or refs. In which case, the strong-arm, image-defining might of the Republicans — led by crafty Bush family friend James Baker III (Tom Wilkinson) — clearly had the advantage over the studious fairness-seekers on the Democratic side, spearheaded by an eager-to-prove-himself former chief of staff for Gore named Ron Klain (Kevin Spacey). As Jeffrey Toobin aptly summarized it in his Too Close to Call: The 36-Day Battle to Decide the 2000 Election, while Democrats “were hunched over their calculators, the Republicans were breaking bar stools over their heads.”
Needless to say, for Bush-haters and those who view Gore’s 21st-century celebritydom as little consolation for the botched 2000 run, Recount will feel like a roller-coaster ride all too often inclined toward stomach-sinking cries of “Oh, no!” than shrieks of “Woo hoo!” Every podium briefing from either the Florida legislature (Bush-leaning) or the Florida Supreme Court (liberal-packed) announcing some ruling on the matter — continue the recount, stop the recount — is the equivalent of a toggle switch turning one camp’s hopes on and the other’s off.
Roach gets a lot of suspenseful mileage out of these ping-ponging reversals of fortune. He even throws in thriller shadings of every genre stripe: The holy-shit race to stop Gore before he formalizes his concession at a televised rally is filmed like one of those ticking-time-bomb movies — complete with breathless phone calls, hand-held camera work, rain-slicked streets, a motorcade of limos heading for disaster and a hobbling aide breaking through security to intercept the target (except the assassination being prevented is a candidate’s self-defeat on camera). Later, who would have guessed that the proffering of a sneakily biased advisory opinion to a confused elections-canvassing board member would play like one of those spy-movie moments of perversely exciting infiltration? And there’s a feeling of genuine danger and physical threat in the re-creation of what became known as the Brooks Brothers riot, when organized Republican congressional staffers mobbed Miami-Dade County’s hand-recounting efforts and effectively halted them.
As for the movie’s politics, they’re fair-minded enough for something coming from Hollywood, meaning that it sticks to the fascinating nuts and bolts of both sides’ legal and PR maneuvers, matter-of-factly airs Republican grievances but gives more “quality” face time to the righteousness of Spacey’s gang, and indulges in only one case of right-wing caricature, with rubber-faced Laura Dern’s Mad TV–ready portrayal of Katherine Harris — painted and unpainted — as a Bush-loyal yet narcissistic loon.
Democrats have already begun griping that the movie wrongly tars former Secretary of State Warren Christopher as a slave to orderliness — and he is played by John Hurt with a kind of stately absence of aggression intended to be maddening — while Wilkinson is commandingly lionlike as Baker, his role confined mostly to being a formidable opponent. Spacey, meanwhile, recaptures some of the intoxicatingly mature, precision-timed excitement he used to galvanize audiences with when the movies he made were better. He’s well-teamed — 14 years after they made The Ref — with a reliably vicious-mouthed Denis Leary as Democratic strategist Michael Whouley.
If there’s a true outrage nestled in the film’s reason for being, it certainly isn’t that Gore should have won. That’s taken care of in a scene in which Klain confesses to Whouley over drinks, “You know what’s funny about all this? I’m not even sure I like Al Gore.” Rather, Recount firmly aims its activism at the notion that a well-justified hand-tabulation of Florida’s votes — one that would have cleared up the question of who earned the presidency — was sadly prevented, at first by gamesmanship, at the end by a dishonest Supreme Court, and finally by a lack of willpower. But maybe you’ve managed to “get over it,” as conservative Justice Antonin Scalia admonished all complainers to do in a recent 60 Minutes interview. In which case you won’t be nagged by the witty Citizen Kane crib at the end, a shot of a box of unrecounted ballots — the Rosebud of this story — being neatly inserted into its slot in a wall of such boxes that fill a vast warehouse. All others settling in for Recount, start your hackles and danders.
There’s a subtextual Bush-Gore rematch of sorts — conspiratorial, environmentally unfriendly government versus ecologically minded, Earth-saving science — going on in the two-night, four-hour miniseries The Andromeda Strain,airing Monday and Tuesday on A&E. Michael Crichton’s 1969 best-seller was about a deadly space pathogen — brought to Earth by a crashed satellite — that wipes out a small town, and the elite team of scientists who’ve been assembled in a secret underground lab called Wildfire to prevent its further infestation. Although germ warfare was an element of Crichton’s story, the emphasis was on the scientists and their pressurized problem solving. For this new take on the 1971 movie version, screenwriter Robert Schenkkan has added extra layers of sinister human shenanigans outside Wildfire — evil intelligence operatives, military assassins and a coke-addicted, muckraking journalist, not to mention a controversial presidential initiative to embark on deep-sea thermal mining — which threaten to overwhelm an already tense story with a ludicrous amount of interconnected peril. I mean, come on, a nuclear-strike scenario and time travel and kidnapping a scientist’s family? Somewhere around the time a flock of Andromeda-infected birds murderously attacked a military convoy, I decided the Strain of the title really meant something else. The other tweak of note is the inclusion of a think-green message — as evidenced by the not-so-shocking role that the effort to stop thermal mining plays in the solution to killing Andromeda — while Crichton has become a global-warming naysayer and gone so far as to call environmentalism a religion. As amusing as that is, I’m not so certain this new version’s ham-fisted eco-evangelism isn’t a cynical case of updating a legendarily cautionary technothriller best-seller author with the newest version of hipster alertness. Al Gore may watch this at home and wish his face were on it, saying, “I approve this message,” but it would be a shame if Hollywood’s adding a save-the-planet tag to every other piece of action-packed escapism became just another all-too-convenient truth.
RECOUNT | HBO | Sun., May 25, 9 p.m.
THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN | A&E | Mon., May 26 & Tues., May 27, 9 p.m.