I was pretty excited to check out HBO’s new original film Recount partly because, you know, amazing cast: Kevin Spacey, Denis Leary, Laura Dern, John Hurt, Tom Wilkinson. But also because I love having raw wounds ripped open, like the one that smarts every day when I see the smoking ruin that is America in 2008 and wonder, Geez, how different would things be if Al Gore had been president these last eight years?
Recount — debuting on HBO on Sunday, May 25, at 9pm Eastern — isn’t an alternate-universe fantasy that explores that scenario: no, it’s just pouring salt in the jagged festering sore that the fiasco of the 2000 presidental election remains. Not that that’s a bad thing. It just doesn’t make for the most entertaining Memorial Day entertainment. But maybe we’ve had enough of bread and circuses these days and could use a reminder of how bizarrely off-track we’ve gotten since those 36 days in late 2000 when butterfly ballots and hanging chads and purged voters and and dueling judges were all the rage. Remember the fun?
Do you want to relive this? Recount is smart and snappy and more than a little nasty — though maybe that’s appropriate — and there is, at least, enjoyment to be found in the all-around fantastic performances. Spacey is a snarly puppy as the former chief of staff to VP Gore who’s worked like a dog on the presidential campaign yet been passed over should a Gore White House come to be, and then he morphs into a bulldog when the fight over the election moves into full swing. Leary is his usual wonderfully foul-mouthed self as a Gore honcho, except here his splendid vulgarity seems extra pertinent (you’ll be swearing along with him). Dern is an absolute hoot as Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, a big fish in a little pond relishing the sudden global attention fixed on her — she can’t help but approach reporters like she’s a rock star holding court, and not with any kind of solemnity the situation would seem to require.
What can we do about fixing things so this doesn’t happen again? Recount doesn’t offer any answers, except in the subtext: Look at what cheaters the Republicans are! Forget about who actually garnered more votes than the other (though the Republican-backed voter-purge thing is pretty blatant in that regard) — the Republicans don’t want to play fair when it comes to the recount. Wilkinson as James Baker, on the Bush side, calls the whole disaster “a street fight for the presidency of the United States,” while for the Democrats, there’s Hurt’s Warren Christopher saying exactly the opposite. As Leary says, “We can’t play a gentleman’s game here or we’re gonna fuckin’ lose” — and, hello, look what happened.
Which isn’t to suggest that fighting dirty is the way to win. Unless you want to win by losing everything else. That’s the most depressing thing about Recount: a beautiful illustration of an ugly and impossible situation is still ugly.