You know a political movie has some juice when both Republicans and Democrats are upset about it.
Indeed, Recount, HBO's film about the dispute over Florida votes in the 2000 presidential election, seems positively bipartisan in its ability to infuriate.
Warren Christopher, the former secretary of state who headed Al Gore's effort to get votes recounted, told the New York Times that the movie's account was "pure fiction." And one person close to Florida's former Republican Secretary of State Katherine Harris has said her portrayal as a self-centered eccentric was better suited to a skit on Saturday Night Live.
Co-star Denis Leary couldn't care less who's ticked off — particularly those who say Recount makes Democrats look good because they didn't use hardball tactics to win Florida.
"Hey . . . everybody's culpable here," Leary said. "I'm sorry that this is the way the process works. But if there's two minutes left in the game and the other guy's clawing his way over your center to get to the quarterback . . . well, do you want to win the game, or do you want to lose it?"
I spoke to Leary earlier this month inside a decked-out trailer in Queens, N.Y., where he was filming scenes for his FX series Rescue Me. Leaning back as he talked, an impossibly thin figure with trademark flyaway hair and cigarette in hand, Leary was frank about why he even considered playing Democratic strategist Michael Whouley:
His pal, Kevin Spacey, asked him to do it.
Once on board, Leary joined his friend in Jacksonville and Tallahassee for three months of shooting (which turned into four), working alongside Oscar nominee Tom Wilkinson as George W. Bush advocate James Baker, Oscar nominee John Hurt as Warren Christopher, Oscar nominee Laura Dern as Katherine Harris and Oscar winner Spacey as former Gore chief of staff Ron Klain.
"It was intimidating for the first couple of scenes," Leary said. "Every other day, there'd be Hurt or Tom Wilkinson or Laura Dern . . . and the work just kept getting better. I think there was a sense of importance, like let's show what really happened here."
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But did they? Some participants are questioning whether Recount got the story straight, even though actor-turned-screenwriter Danny Strong conducted interviews with more than 40 people involved in the struggle.
Christopher and Gore's campaign chairman William Daley have objected to their depiction as slightly overmatched leaders focused on negotiating a civil resolution with Republicans.
Spacey's Klain and Leary's Whouley are shown heroically resisting Christopher's initial urge to take a more measured approach, eventually persuading Gore to be more aggressive during the recount.
"The thing I always remember about Al Gore is that after it was all over, he gave this great (concession) speech," Leary said. "But where was he during the whole recount process? He had a stick up his a-- for most of it, and now all of a sudden he's a great speaker? When it's over?"
Strong — who got the idea for Recount after watching Stuff Happens, a British play dramatizing the run-up to the Iraq war — said he got feedback from Baker, Klain, Gore lawyer David Boies, Bush lawyer Ben Ginsberg and Florida GOP lobbyist J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich, among others.
So how did he build a compelling TV movie from a story everybody knows because we all watched it when it was happening?
"I felt like what was being documented back then was the circus — press conferences and protests," Strong said. "All we were talking about was hanging chad and Harris' makeup."
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Dern plays Harris as a brittle, self-involved functionary who compares her struggle to resolve the recount in Bush's favor to the scriptural story of Queen Esther's efforts to save the Jews.
Stipanovich, a longtime Tallahassee power broker, is shown directing Harris' efforts from inside the secretary of state's office, encouraging her to interpret election laws in ways that would favor Bush.
He said last week that many scenes in Recount boiled down meetings involving scores of people to fewer characters, playing up the vision of Harris as an airhead.
"Did I tell Katherine that we needed to bring this election in for a landing?" said Stipanovich. "Yes, I did, but she wasn't standing there like a ditz drying her nails (as the movie shows)."
He agreed that Dern's performance seems influenced by the Harris we saw during her run for the U.S. Senate — when her tumultuous candidacy chewed through countless aides, who later dished to the press about her erratic behavior.
"In terms of content, the scenes in which I appear are essentially correct," Stipanovich added. "In terms of presentation, they have been significantly modified for dramatic effect, and not to Katherine's benefit."
Dan Berger, a former chief of staff for Harris, said Dern's performance "had a Saturday Night Live feel to it." He disputed the film's characterization of Stipanovich as Harris' controller.
"I wasn't in the room for those meetings (with Stipanovich), but to give the attention to one person as a puppeteer isn't accurate," said Berger, now a lobbyist in Washington. "It feels like the film has a liberal bias to it."
Berger also criticized Strong for failing to interview Harris. But the screenwriter said she initially agreed to speak with him during a trip to Florida, then didn't return calls until he was on his way back to California.
At times, it seems the loudest objections have come from those who are portrayed the worst, regardless of party affiliation. But Strong said his real intent was to focus on the flaws in the election process.
"The goal . . . was to say 'We can do better than this,' " he said. "Secretaries of state should not be allowed to participate in the candidates' campaigns . . .
It's as if there was a World Series between the Yankees and the Dodgers and the umpire was wearing a Yankees cap."
Leary saw a simpler lesson. "Ultimately, the message of this movie probably should be: 'Vote — and then we don't have to do any of this again,' " he said, laughing. "But also, if everything falls away from what's supposed to be, you'd better be ready to improvise and play to win."
Eric Deggans can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8521. See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.