Nominated for 11 Emmy Awards, including two for Lead Actor and two for Supporting Actor, this film, which originally premiered on HBO in late May, tells the story of the Florida vote recount that took place following the 2000 Presidential election. The story is not about Al Gore or George W. Bush. Yes, the election was between those two and, yes, the two are involved, but the filmmakers did as much as they could to exclude the two candidates.
The film instead focuses on the month of time in Florida when the people working for both candidates took arms in battle to decide an unprecedented case that ceased being about any one political party and more about the problems that existed, and possibly still exist, in our election process, especially the problems for those living in the Sunshine State.
Because this is a Hollywood production, and Hollywood is known for its liberal bias, some might argue that this film favors the Democrats and casts a more heroic light on them, while villifying the Republicans. I will admit that the Democrats are the protagonists here. They are the first people and the last people you see, but, this is not necessarily because the filmmakers wanted to build sympathy for the Democrats, despite the fact that that's what they end up achieving. No. We end up spending more time with the left because this really was the Democrats' story to tell and because they were the ones who called for the recount. So, if it weren't for them, there would have been no story here.
However, before anyone politically to the right of Gore turns their head, let me just inform you that director Jay Roach (Austin Powers and Meet the Parents) and writer and actor Danny Strong (Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Gilmore Girls), in his first produced screenplay, have done their homework.
On the DVD's commentary, Strong reveals that in preparation for the writing of this story, he read twenty books on the subject. Strong took it upon himself to fully absorb himself of all of these books. Listening to Strong on the DVD, one could also tell that he fully immersed himself in Florida's election laws. He starts to talk about the election laws and he becomes like a runaway freight train. He goes on and on, and he explains each stop or stumbling block along the way with such detail and clarity that could only have come from deep study.
Strong also revealed on the DVD commentary that he took it upon himself to personally interview as many people involved in this story, as he could, if not every single person who has a speaking role. He verifies that he conducted tons of sit down and face-to-face conversations with the real people of this story. The only exception was Katherine Harris, but, after the script was written, Roach confirms that everything was vetted by HBO's lawyers and given the okay, so this was not some haphazard project. The filmmakers did their homework.
They start on the day the whole thing started, November 7, 2000, that year's election day. We're dropped right in the voting booths of several elderly people in Palm Beach county in Florida, elderly people confused by the punch-hole, butterfly ballots in front of them.
Two-time, Oscar-winning actor Kevin Spacey plays Ron Klain, Al Gore's former chief of staff who is currently doing press relations out of the Democrats' Nashville office. Klain had a higher and better position but was forced out a few years ago.
Bill Daley, played by Mitch Pileggi (The X-Files and Stargate: Atlantis), calls Klain to offer him a job on Gore's transition team, a job he had before, but at this point would be a demotion from where he would have been had he not been forced out.
Klain turns down the job, but, despite that, is a dedicated and loyal Democrat, willing to do whatever he can to get his candidate in office. Yet, Klain and Gore haven't spoken in a while. Klain knows that things would probably not be as they were. Klain decides after the election to take a job with Warren Christopher, the former U.S. Secretary of State under Bill Clinton.
However, something happens around 10 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. Michael Whouley, the Gore campaign's chief field operative, played by comedian Denis Leary, realizes the networks who announced Bush as the winner of the election have the wrong numbers, and that a computer error tallied the votes incorrectly.
Once Klain is told this, it's at this point in the script that the filmmakers were sold on this movie. The immediate aftermath of Klain and Whouley's revelation that night plays out like a thriller. A limo chase, a scuffle with the secret service by a man with a limp, and a concession speech that must be stopped all become fodder for an exciting political moment. It's then that the film kicks into gear and ensnares us in the recount battle, which evolves into a legal one, that goes all the way to the Supreme Court.
There is a scene that is brilliantly written and hilariously performed by Leary where his character explains what a hanging CHAD, or Card Hole Aggregate Debris, and what a dimpled chad are. Klain learns in that scene that a machine recount is not enough. What they need is a hand recount. What comes into question is if there's a reasonable amount of time and if a hand recount is even fair.
Oscar-nominated actor Tom Wilkinson (In the Bedroom and Michael Clayton) plays James Baker, the former U.S. Secretary of State under George Bush. He joins the Republicans in Florida with their opposition to the hand recount. Baker is in direct opposition to Warren Christopher. Christopher wants this to be a proper legal battle, but Baker wants a political street fight. Christopher is humble and restrained, whereas Baker is arrogant and fearless.
Baker is not one for holding back on pulling dirty tricks. He suggest someone orgazine protests, which are totally legal, but later are revealed as not being totally ethical. There's also the fact that he's in bed, figuratively, with Katherine Harris, Florida's Secretary of State, played by Laura Dern (Jurassic Park and Blue Velvet).
Now, in a New York Times article two weeks prior to the premiere of this film, the real Warren Christopher and Bill Daley complained about their portrayals in this film, but of all the portrayals, the one that people, outside of her true counterpart, might take the most offense is Dern's take on Katherine Harris. Even though her actions and dialogue are based on verifiable sources, and even though the filmmakers acknowledge on the commentary that Harris is a smart and interesting woman, Dern's performance could appear on the surface very ditzy, naive, and clownish. Dern is, however, sincere, and she never breaks. There are moments, though, of unbelievability.
Yet, her involvement is important because it goes to the heart of the inherent problem. Katherine Harris was supposed to be a fair and impartial overseer of this process. She said as much in a national press conference. Yet, she was also the co-chair of Bush's Florida campaign.
However, the filmmakers point out that the Democrats made some mis-steps. They also committed some unfair tactics and some hypocritical moves that added to the mess. As one person points out, Gore wasn't interested in recounting all the votes, he was only interested in recounting votes for Gore. Klain espouses that every vote has a right to be counted. It's an ideal that he reiterates but fails to live up to. This is where Spacey stands out, as his performance of a man trying to live up to an ideal but failing and not wanting to give up but having to concede is exemplary.
The filmmakers blend real news footage with sequences mimicked by their actors seamlessly. For some sequences, like the Republican recount protests, the director went and found the actual protestors from 2000 who were there to be in that scene. They've captured the essence of what happened and even shed some light on issues at the time that many had no clue about, including the voter purge list, which discriminated against thousands of African-Americans.
With amazing supporting roles from Bob Balaban, Ed Begley Jr., Bruce McGil, and Derek Cecil, this film is a must see, one of the best political docudramas that can be ranked up there with All the President's Men (1976).
Five Stars out of Five
Playing on HBO
Also Available on DVD
Running Time: 1 hr. and 55 mins.