Ah, Florida

Illustration by Jason Gnewikow

Sydney Pollack was originally supposed to direct Recount, HBO’s movie version of the Florida presidential-election fiasco that went all the way to the Supreme Court in December 2000, after which … well, George W. was what after-whiched. From Pollack, although it’s impossible to say whether we would have gotten the indignation and suspense of 3 Days of the Condor or the perfect farce of Tootsie, we could at least have counted on energy all over the place, with actors chewing up scenery and each other. But Pollack chose instead to executive-produce, and what we get from Jay Roach, while nothing as one-joke gross as his Austin Powers films, is too often listless when not inert. With the exceptions of a furious Denis Leary as Michael Whouley, chief political strategist of the Democratic National Committee, and an over-the-top Laura Dern as Katherine Harris, Florida’s hothouse secretary of State, a splendid cast mostly just sits around watching the bad news on television, dutiful to the letter of Danny Strong’s conscientious script yet insufficiently roused to righteous spirit even as, before their eyes, our republic gets banana’d.

(On the other hand, I probably wouldn’t have been satisfied by an Ibsen script, with Eisenstein or Kurosawa directing, and Wagnerian bassoons.)

Kevin Spacey, playing Ron Klain, Gore’s former chief of staff who winds up ramrodding the Florida recount effort, is our point of view—cynical but soft, tethered to old loyalties, still susceptible to angelic voices but also tired down to his toes. He requires the caustic whiplash tongue of Leary in the next cubicle. Other Democrats include John Hurt as Warren Christopher, Bill Clinton’s preening former secretary of State, who won’t play dirty or for keeps; Mitch Pileggi as Bill Daley, Gore’s campaign chairman, clueless in Gaza; and Ed Begley Jr. as David Boies, the hotshot appellate lawyer who loses this case all the way to the top. Republicans are represented by Tom Wilkinson as James Baker, George Herbert’s former secretary of Whatever, as sleazy as he’s slick; Bob Balaban, against type and doubtless personal inclination, as Ben Ginsberg, George W.’s worrywart lead counsel; Bruce McGill as J. M. “Mac the Knife” Stipanovich, a Republican lobbyist who puts the arm on Katherine Harris; Dern’s Harris, so overdressed and downright loony she really needs another movie; and battalions of bullyboys bused in to intimidate election officials.

I will not again rehearse the issues. Scriptwriter Strong has interviewed everybody who would talk to him about those 36 days, and consulted the book-writing likes of Jeffrey Toobin, David A. Kaplan, David Von Drehle, and Jake Tapper. He can be relied on to remind us of butterfly-ballot design, hand-versus-machine recounts, 175,000 “non-votes,” disputed absentee ballots, 20,000 fictitious “felons” disqualified before they got to the polls, and Pat Buchanan’s surprising support among elderly Jews in Palm Beach County. All this ended up with the Supremes, of course, who voted to stay the recount until the legal deadline for finishing such a recount had almost passed—thus deciding, on a straight partisan hack vote, that states’ rights were less important than Republican victory. So much for strict constructionism.

“Make sure no one trashes the Supreme Court,” noble noodle Al Gore is quoted telling Spacey’s Klain after the 5-4 coup d’état. So they didn’t, for the national good. Indeed, hadn’t the New York Times already explained that the American people had run out of patience? Shouldn’t everybody agree at last to “move on”? But I wonder. Whose patience was so exhausted as to excuse calling off a count of every vote to decide a presidency?

Recount needed to spend more time with the Supremes and less with Katherine Harris, an easy if amusing target. Maybe the whole movie could have used a Dennis Potter punch-up, with pop songs and show-stopping production numbers. As Roach plays it, we get neither the seriousness nor the sensationalism, splitting the middle between drama and farce. Is that a dimple in your chad, or were you just left hanging?

Q&A With Laura Dern on Playing Katherine Harris

Premieres Sunday, May 25, at 9 p.m.

Ah, Florida