"Recount": Fact and Fiction

Culture Watch

Mr. Weisenmiller is a Florida-based reporter for the international news-wire agency Inter Press Service and a contributor to, among other media outlets, The Economist and America in WWII. In the fall of 2008 his book Chet Huntley: Newscaster From The West A New Kind Of Book---which has a target audience of teenagers, young people in their twenties, and members of the so-called "Baby Boom" generation, will be published. .

As one of the numerous correspondents who reported on some of the stories spawned from the 2000 Presidential dispute here in Florida, I was interested to see how Home Box Office (HBO)'s film about the historical event, entitled "Recount" and which made it's broadcast debut on Sunday, would present the matter.

Overall, this reporter would have to pair the film with the play (and later, the 1960 film) "Inherit The Wind." To wit: both "Recount" and "Inherit The Wind" are entertaining and informative movies---the latter is based on the 1925 so-called "Scopes Monkey Trial," which was the famous Tennessee legal case that examined the teaching of evolution in public schools---but certainly should not be considered unquestioned truth.

For example, there is a short scene in "Recount" in which Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris (well played by Laura Dern) is before a window in her office in the state capital of Tallahassee. She looked out and saw a number of people carrying protest signs and using their constitutional right of assembly.

The dialogue-less scene focused on Harris/Dern's facial expressions. "Recount" screenwriter Danny Strong has said that the scene is fictional. Harris hasn't publicly commented on the film, so we don't know if such a scene actually occurred or not. Yet this purposefully blank scene, so to write, also left a blank feeling with the viewer, as no perceptible point of view was taken.

The film is set in the days when the world in general, and U.S. citizens in particular, waited for 36 days in 2000 to find out whether Republican George W. Bush or Democrat Al Gore won the election. Such a decision was not made by the Florida electorate. The U.S. Supreme Court would rule in favor of Bush.

Some of "Recount" was shot in Tallahassee and the film did a good job of capturing the city's ethically questionable political wheeling-dealing ways which, of course, were amplified in November and December, 2000.

Strong has told reporters that he has heard back from both Democrats and Republicans about "Recount" and that the remarks from these people have been far from laudatory. For we Florida-based reporters, that's a flashing warning sign that Strong's screenplay may have, so to write, hit too close to home for these Democrats and Republicans.

In one scene in "Recount" Harris, who found herself in an untenable situation for which she was not qualified (it was she who decided that 20,000 votes, many from African-Americans in the northern part of the state would not officially be counted) compared her situation to that of the Bible story of Queen Esther who was "helping those lovely Jewish people."

In its essence, that scene was fact, not fiction. Mrs. Harris was, and is, a devout Christian and in past interviews she has admitted that she did, indeed, make the above-mentioned comparison. While interviewing here for a story a few years ago about her campaign for a U.S. Senate seat, and while we were chatting about what she did and did not do during November and December, 2000, she told this reporter so.

Two somewhat disappointments in the film were the roles of Ron Klain (Kevin Spacey) and Michael Whouley (Dennis Leary) , Gore's Chief of Staff and an aid-de-camp respectively, who, historians will recall, put much pressure on Harris for a statewide recount of the now famous "hanging chad" and "dimpled ballot" votes. The disappointment was not with Spacey's and Leary's performances---their acting was interesting---but rather with Strong's tepid dialogue for the two characters. The screenwriter needed to put more punchy sentences, something along the lines of Clifford Odets-like dialogue, into the two actors' lines. Strong did not. Klain and Whouley ended up looking like glorified bean-counters or, in this case, vote counters.

"Recount" is one of those films where the most interesting characters are not the starring roles. Warren Christopher (John Hurt) for the Democrats and James Baker III (Tom Wilkinson) for the Republicans are shown as shrewd political operatives, but the performances one will remember about this film are actor Bruce McGill's (who played long-time Florida Republican political lobbyist J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich) and especially Laura Dern's acting. The latter makes Harris an erratic state bureaucrat who wanted to do good but was manipulated by forces and powers outside her control.

So yes "Recount" comes recommended, but no, historians, the film is not wihtour factual flaws.

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Randll Reese Besch - 6/2/2008

I was wondering about it. I don't have HBO so it will be a very long time,if ever I will see it.