And that is the mark of a truly well done film. My own political ire was inflamed while watching this movie, but I will do my best to keep it out of my review.
Recount marks the screenwriting debut of Danny Strong, best known to Whedonites as Jonathan, one third of Buffy’s Evil Nerd Trio. Simply put, his debut is very…well…strong. The dialogue and storytelling in his script show that Strong has truly learned the craft of screenwriting from the master, Joss Whedon.
The story is told primarily from the perspective of Ron Klain (played by Kevin Spacey), Gore’s ex chief of staff*censormode*campaign manager. Spacey leads an all-star cast that includes Denis Leary, John Hurt, Tom Wilkinson, Ed Begley Jr. and Laura Dern. Every performance is played to perfection (with the slight exception of Hurt’s seeming inability to cover his accent). Leary plays Michael Whouley, Gore’s chief field operative and Klain’s right hand through the course of the movie. Both Spacey and Leary have just wonderful on-screen chemistry with Leary’s expletive-laden ranting coupled with Spacey’s bone-dry deadpan. The two of them exude the same level of passion in two completely different and sometimes opposing ways. The standout performance, however, goes to Laura Dern as Katherine Harris, Florida Secretary of State and walking, talking political embarrassment. Dern depicts Harris with a level of self-absorption that, while incredible, never quite crosses the line into caricature.
The movie is directed by Jay Roach of Austin Powers fame. Abandoning his previous campy and over-the-top style, Roach creates a fly-on-the-wall docudrama presentation worthy of Mike Nichols or Sidney Pollack. Coupled with Dave Grusin’s jazzy soundtrack, it creates a somewhat light-hearted feel towards an otherwise dour and depressing storyline. We are taken from the confused voters in Palm Beach to the eventual ballot recounts to a protracted and politically energized legal battle over various levels of recount validity that ends up going all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. And while I said that this is primarily told from the perspective of those in charge of Gore’s campaign, it also gives an equal amount of time to the Bush campaign and illustrates the two very different strategies and ideals without truly choosing narrative sides in the telling. Neither candidate is featured prominently on screen. Both Al Gore and George W. Bush are shown from behind, from a distance, or only in voice over. This keeps the focus on the campaign leaders who are fighting the actual battles.
There is a wonderful level of dialogue nuance in this, best illustrated in one of Al Gore’s final lines as he announces that he is going to finally concede the election and end the protracted and frustrating battle: "Even if I win, I can’t win." This one line just contains volumes of subtext about how the recount battle, having lasted over a month, had so soured the American public that either winner would be vilified by the other side so vehemently that it would leave an immediate and permanent stain on their presidency.
With another hotly contested election coming up, Recount serves as both a reminder and a cautionary tale about how bipolar our political system has become.