An Election Too Close to Call

20-Oct-08 12:54 PM by
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The 2000 presidential election was the first I was eligible to participate in. I remember being surprised and disappointed at how slowly that election resolved itself, but I confess I didn't pay it much attention — I was still in college and felt I had more immediate concerns, like exams and concerts. The election also seemed a dull matter of lawsuits and recounts; I cared more about the resolution than the methodology.

Fast forward eight years, and I hope I'm a bit more civic minded. Still, I'm more a film buff than a politician, so it wasn't until I heard Kevin Spacey was the lead that I found myself wanting to see HBO's recent dramatization of that convoluted election.

Recount logoRecount, which aired in May and came to DVD in August, begins on November 7, 2000, and ends on December 13. What begins as a clear loss for Vice President Gore quickly snowballs as confused voters step forward and political affiliations persuade officials into partisan decisions. A series of lawsuits, hearings, and legal interpretations showcases this affair that was more drawn out than I recalled.

The title suggests a staid documentary about recounting ballots, but it's a tenser political drama than that. I live in a so-called blue state and so was challenged to find anyone who wanted to watch with me a movie "about Bush stealing the election", as they called it. I wanted to watch it not so that it would infuriate me, but for it to serve as a case study of the process in which this country will be engaging in two weeks. Recount is a look at the American election system and its flaws and loopholes — at how it should work and how it actually works.

This election is brought to life by an award-winning cast. Kevin Spacey and Tom Wilkinson play Ron Klein and James Baker, recount overseers for the Gore and Bush camps, respectively. The supporting cast includes Denis Leary (born in the city I now live in), John Hurt (Watership Down, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones 4), Bob Balaban (Waiting for Guffman, City Slickers II), and Ed Begley Jr. (Arrested Development, Star Trek: Voyager). DVD extras include interviews between the actors and the real-life characters they portray.

Attorney David Boies (Begley) invites Ron Klain (Spacey) to eat "the red ones" for breakfast.
Attorney David Boies (Begley) invites Ron Klain (Spacey)
to eat "the red ones" for breakfast.

We see only the backs, never the faces, of the actors portraying Al Gore and George W. Bush, and after the film's first few minutes, we don't see even that, being limited to their voices on speakerphone (or historical footage on TV). Although this conscious effort is a bit awkward, it underscores that the leading roles are their campaign leaders. In one particularly tense scene in the Supreme Court, we can see Kevin Spacey hold his breath as Ed Begley Jr. is asked difficult questions. There's a pause as pregnant as a chad that gives the audience time to consider how trapped and speechless we would be in that same situation, and Spacey doesn't let his breath out until Begley somehow spins an honest and helpful answer beyond the eloquence of your average American. Even though we know how Recount ends as much as we did with Titanic, it's the behind-the-scenes twists, turns, and surprises that make this film more than a historical recounting.

The cast and crew also has a pair of surprising geek connections. First is that the script was written by Danny Strong, a minor actor from Joss Whedon's Buffy and Firefly series. Second is a ten-second cameo by William Schallert, prolific actor from the Patty Duke and Dobie Gillis era. Though insignificant in this film, Mr. Schallert always brings a smile to my face, which those depressed by the remainder of this film could likely use.

Whoever the stars are on either side, it Kevin Spacey's camp that is the lead. Democrats in the audience will be happy to see their party portrayed as the scrappy underdogs working out of a strip mall while the evil and finely-tailored Republicans play hardball to get their way. I do not necessarily interpret this angle as a liberal bias; every movie needs a protagonist, and given that we all know how the movie ends, there is little cinematic alternative but to cast the two parties in these roles. Besides, I came not for the people, but for the process — and ultimately, regardless of the fairness of the process, I must believe in this closing statement for the hope of future elections:

"The system worked. There were no tanks on the street. This peaceful transfer of power in the most emotional and trying of times is a testament to the strength of the Constitution and to our faith in the rule of law."

American Elseworlds

07-Oct-07 11:20 AM by
Filed under Reviews; 2 comments.

Ever since Michael Moore arrived on the scene, the cinematic landscape has been rife with political agendas. I find film such a meaningful and accessible medium that I consider it important to keep an open mind about these expressions — which is why I'm disturbed by the two camps of reactions I've encountered concerning Death of a President, a mockumentary looking back at the Oct 19, 2007 assassination of President George W. Bush.

Without having seen the film, some potential viewers may attack it as violent and unnecessarily advocative. Yet though I disclaim to these people, "The film doesn't encourage the action it documents," I am more disturbed when I must offer such defense to the opposite camp: those for whom describing the movie's premise results in their eyes lighting up with a fearsome glee. Living in a blue state, I've witnessed this reaction more often than I care to count, and I'm appalled at the number of people who think the solution to an administration that's gone too far to the right is to gun down the leader of the free world.

If either group were to watch the film, though, I think they would find little antagonism beyond its concept. Death of a President relates the events leading up to the President being shot, using actual footage of events and speeches President Bush attended. Original scenes include exterior footage of motorcades as well as interviews with personnel close to the President, including his speechwriter and Secret Service agent. The integration between actual and manufactured footage and stills is seamless, easily pulling the audience into its false accounts. This first half-hour is both tense and powerful, as its players know when and how the assassination is going to happen — yet all the audience can do is hold their breath and wait. Viewers who were present for our last presidential assassination may find this one evoking some painful memories.

It is after the bullet hits that Death of a President begins to lose its impact. I was hoping the film would take a global perspective in its examination of the impact of our president's assassination on the international theater. And though this topic is touched upon, the film's character becomes that of a murder mystery or political thriller. Suspects and forensic analysts are interviewed as investigators try to determine whodunnit. Clues and red herrings are scattered about, and the conclusion is not what anyone expected — or even desired.

Perhaps if the film had taken a longer view of the killing's repercussions, it might have taken a greater scale. Death of a President is set in 2008, only a year after its fictitious subject, when all that it has engendered is the swearing in of President Cheney and the passing of Patriot Act III, giving the FBI and other departments unprecedented powers to prevent future acts of terrorism. The consequences of these transitions are not well-documented, though, as little time has been given for such consequences to occur.

This documentary starts off with great potential yet ultimately gets swallowed up in details. It has a fascinating concept and may still be worth watching, but ultimately, I was hoping it would go beyond the titular death into looking at the lives of those left behind.