An Election Too Close to Call

20-Oct-08 12:54 PM by
Filed under Reviews; Comments Off on An Election Too Close to Call

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."

A Convenient Film

15-Oct-07 6:14 PM by
Filed under Films; 4 comments.

It seems like documentaries have suddenly become an acceptable format for a popular film release. From political releases such as Death of a President and the upcoming Jimmy Carter: Man From Plains, to scientific subjects such as In the Shadow of the Moon and more grounded ones like March of the Penguins, they all beg the question: Why the sudden approval of a predominantly slow, plodding, and — gasp! — educational medium?

I say the person we have to thank is Al Gore. As the former next president of the United States, Mr. Gore has a kind of fame not usually found in Hollywood. Any other star would've made a film about global warming into a made-for-TV special, but Mr. Gore propelled An Inconvenient Truth into theaters. Both his 2000 election loss and global warming are topics that are, for better or worse, controversial; people wanted to see what this presidential candidate, politically quiet for six years, had been up to, what his new angle was. It wasn't like Morgan Freeman narrating March of the Penguins; as engaging as the film was, there's little debatable about birds, and they didn't represent Mr. Freeman's politics or platform. But global warming? It's either the biggest scientific hoax of all time, or one of the greatest threats to life on Earth. It was a killer combination of topic and delivery, and its accolades, awards, and accumulated profits have opened the door for other documentarians.

And so I'd like to thank Mr. Gore, not for either alerting us to this peril or perpetuating this worldwide fraud, but for showing that documentaries can be edgy, accessible, and enjoyable — and, in so doing, expanding the diversity of film genres, subjects, and debates. If you haven't already discovered this cinematic style courtesy the Discovery or History channels or the works of Ken Burns, check it out; you'll find it's grown up from the inescapably dull classroom lessons forced upon you a generation ago.

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