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Election debacle: the movie

For those of us who lived through it here, Recount, HBO's two-hour film about the interminable fight over the 2000 presidential election in Florida may feel like one long nightmare replayed.

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It has taken eight years, but I managed to forget the long weeks GOP and Democratic stalwarts held the state hostage to uncertain election results. A confusing butterfly ballot in Palm Beach County led thousands of elderly voters to choose Pat Buchanan, a guy so far out of the running even he admitted there had to be an error.

I had suppressed the embarrassing flip-flop of media calling Florida for Vice President Al Gore, then admitting it was too close to call, then giving the state to George W. Bush, then admitting they didn't really know who won.

The cascade of embarrassingly vague and contradictory Florida election laws had slipped from my mind — along with the oppressively broad list of excluded voters that encompassed 20,000 people with names similar to convicted felons, half of whom were black.

But HBO had to go out and make a funny, detailed, visceral movie about it all, casting film vets Kevin Spacey, Denis Leary, Tom Wilkinson and John Hurt as behind-the-scenes gladiators most voters never knew, fighting over leadership of the free world.

Conservatives will hate this film. That's because screenwriter Danny Strong — an actor with credits ranging from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Nip/Tuck — casts his story as mostly well-intentioned Gore guys vs. backdoor dealing, Florida government-controlling, hypocritical Bush Republicans.

And no character sums up this attitude more than Laura Dern's magnificently brittle, self-obsessed and slightly nutty take on then-Secretary of State Katherine Harris.

From the moment we meet her, sleeping through election night as the wheels are coming off the state's election system, Dern's Harris is an overmatched functionary committed to delivering the state for Bush while constantly distracted by her own pride and idiosyncrasies.

Like Anthony Hopkins' Nixon and Will Ferrell's George W., Dern's performance is less outright mimicry than an uncanny channeling of her subject's oddball essence, right down to Harris' unnerving references to religion at unexpected moments.

But what the real-life Harris is likely to hate most are the scenes showing Republican strategist Mac Stipanovich — played with oily charm by Bruce McGill — guiding her decisions and urging her to "bring this election in for a landing, with George W. Bush in the cockpit."

The movie, which airs May 25, was sent to critics last week, and I couldn't wait to see who'd landed which parts. As I suggested in a column last year, producers cast a Brit as Bush family consigliere James Baker — though they tapped Oscar nominee Wilkinson (Michael Clayton), who seems to love stumbling through transparent American accents, rather than my pick, Anthony Hopkins.

Another Englishman landed the other elder statesmen role, with Hurt cast as former Secretary of State and Gore loyalist Warren Christopher. Spacey and Leary are former Gore staff chief Ron Klain and campaign field director Michael Whouley, two mid-level staffers who somehow wind up in charge of the vice president's recount fight when the big names bail out.

Strong seems to delight in making the case that the leaders of Gore's campaign were too focused on world opinion, impact on the nation and a sense of propriety to treat the recount battle like the political street fight it was, until the conflict was almost done.

One of the film's most effective moments flits between the war rooms of advocates for Bush and Gore, candidates whose faces are never shown, except in clips from actual news footage.

As Hurt's clipped and proper Christopher lists all the things the Gore camp will not do — no lawsuits, no public protests from supporters, lots of attention to the New York Times pundits and an attempt to negotiate a settlement — Wilkinson's Baker takes exactly the opposite tack.

"This is a street fight for the presidency of the United States," Wilkinson-as-Baker says, his slicked-back, gray locks filling the screen. "Until this is over, I don't want to see a copy of the New York Times unless it's to wrap garbage."

Some Floridians may hate this film as well. Because the parts of the state that aren't shown to be hopelessly backward are completely under the control of the Bush family.

One moment, Gore's camp can't find a law firm in the state willing to represent them, for fear of Jeb Bush's wrath; the next moment, Harris' office is sending "advisory declarations" to canvassing boards struggling with recount rules, counseling them to adopt standards that favor Bush.

Still, despite it all, I liked the film, and not just because of the hope it may yet shame our legislators into fixing a problematic election system.

HBO's Recount turns a dreary tale of court challenges, chad counting and faulty ballot design into a bit of thriller — even when you know exactly how it all turns out.

Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or deggans@sptimes.com. See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.

. ON TV

Recount

It airs at 9 p.m. May 25 on HBO, with repeats.

Election debacle: the movie 05/03/08 [Last modified: Monday, May 5, 2008 2:20pm]

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