What exactly went on behind the scenes of the 2000 election voting disaster, the one that decided the fates of Al Gore and George W. Bush? The HBO film "Recount" gives what I believe to be a fair representation of an historical event, which is ironic since the recount process put the very concept of fairness under intense scrutiny. We obviously all have an opinion on who rightfully won the presidency eight years ago, but I'm not here to debate who was right and who was wrong; I wasn't even old enough to vote back in the year 2000. I'm only here to review a movie. Yes, it tackles a political subject, but that doesn't mean it takes a definite political stance--generally speaking, each side has equal say, and not surprisingly, each side makes valid and not-so-valid points. Writer Danny Strong deserves a lot of praise, not only for showing both sides of the political spectrum, but also for not forcing us to agree with any side in particular.
I have no doubt the recount was more exhausting for those running the campaigns, simply because they were doing all the hard work; both candidates did nothing more than wait for the end result. Overseeing much of Gore's campaign was his former Chief of Staff, Ron Klain (Kevin Spacey), a loyal Democrat embittered after being replaced, first by Tony Coelho, then by Bill Daley (Mitch Pileggi). On election day--November 7--the Gore team gets word of a problem in Palm Beach County, Florida: a number of voters, confused by the ballot voting system, felt they had accidentally voted for Independent Pat Buchanan. This led to a number of TV networks receiving differing poll numbers by the end of the day, some confirming Gore's victory, others confirming Bush's. Hours of retractions and projections paved the way for a statewide machine recount, which meant that Gore was not yet willing to concede.
But problems arose with the machine recounts, mostly the fact that most voting centers were not willing to run the ballots through the machines a second time. They only re-tabulated the results saved on the machines' memory cards. At a certain point, machine recounts no longer seemed viable because of chads, those infamous bits of paper punched out of voting ballots. If the chad was left hanging, the machine could potentially push it back into the hole and read it as a non-vote. The same would be true of a dimpled chad (a chad not punched all the way through). Democratic strategists opted for a hand recount, believing it would more accurately reveal the voters' intentions. Klain and his team demanded the ballots be recounted in the four Florida counties likely to have voted Democratic: Broward, Miami-Dade, Volusa, and Palm Beach.
This set into motion an absolute legal nightmare. Secretary of State Katherine Harris (Laura Dern)--a staunch Bush supporter--immediately oversaw the certification process for the recount, refusing to extend the November 14 deadline despite the need for more time. With the help of former Secretary of State James Baker (Tom Wilkinson), Harris and her Republican advisors announced that hand recounts were not allowed, thus suspending the entire recount process. It wasn't long before the Democrats discovered something interesting: according to Texas law--signed by Bush when he was Governor--hand recounts are preferred over machine recounts, and a dimpled chad does count as a vote. But this begs the question: Why would an out-of-state law have any bearing on the Florida recount, even if it was signed by the potential President Elect?
And what about military ballots? Should they have counted at all? Keep in mind that they weren't given postmarks, signatures, or dates, meaning there was no way to prove they had been sent in before the deadline. Klain's attempts to keep these ballots out of the recount were thwarted as soon as Joseph Lieberman, Gore's running mate, publicly insisted that they be counted; at that point, it seemed less and less likely that Gore would win the election. Even when an African American pastor came forward as part of a voter purge list (simply for having a similar name to a convicted felon), little could be done to stop the inevitable. Never mind the fact that the list contained 20,000 illegal rejections, half of which were from the black population; the U.S. Supreme Court still decided to order a stay of Florida's undercounted ballots.
Of course, there has to be that final moment when Gore quotes a wise man: "I have to end this war when I know I can't win." He says this to Klain over the phone, officially backing down and letting Bush have the presidency. It's a somber moment to be sure, although I'm hard pressed to say that the entire point of "Recount" was for the audience to mourn Gore's loss and condemn Bush's victory. For the most part, the film's liberal and conservative perspectives are nicely balanced. In one scene, for example, Warren Christopher (John Hurt) says, "There's no shame in placing country above party," and that's a little too pacifistic for Klain's taste. Indeed, Christopher took the path of least resistance during the early stages of the recount, and he left before anything was resolved. By the time a resolution is reached, Michael Whouley (Denis Leary) walks with Klain and asks, "If W had asked for a recount, would the Supreme Court have stopped it?" What a thought-provoking question. If only it could be answered.