Sunday 23 November 2008

Movie Review: Recount (2008)

Can the world's leading superpower be unhinged by a Presidential election that is too close to call?

The United States had to face this scenario in the 2000 election, when the decision between Republican candidate George W. Bush and Democratic Vice President Al Gore came down to literally a handful of votes in Florida.

Recount, an HBO production, re-examines the events that transpired, starting on election night with Gore first conceding and then dramatically un-conceding the election as the vote counting in Florida tightens to a statistical dead heat. The film then follows the two campaigns as they mobilize for a bare-knuckled, old-fashioned political fight involving public opinion, the press, overwhelmed local county officials, the Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris (Laura Dern), the Florida Supreme Court and finally the Supreme Court of the United States.

Bush and Gore are peripheral characters in the movie, mostly appearing as voices over the phone. The story is mainly told from the perspective of Ron Klain (Kevin Spacey), the lawyer who ends up leading the Gore team through the legal battles, and former United States Secretary of State James Baker (Tom Wilkinson), who leads the Republican team. Klain and Baker match wits and strategize against each other throughout the 5 weeks of controversy, and only meet at the end of the movie in a symbolic airport encounter.

The film tilts slightly and apologetically in favour of the Democratic party. The Gore team is portrayed as the more sympathetic scrambly bunch, out-gunned and fighting uphill against a slicker, better organized and better financed Republican team fighting on home turf. Florida's Governor is Jeb Bush, the candidate's brother, and Secretary Harris was the Florida campaign co-chair for the Republicans.

The film does an excellent job of recreating the period of uncertainty that prevailed, and of providing an insider's view of the controlled chaos behind the scenes as two massive campaigns maneuver through uncharted waters to try and claim the ultimate political prize. Given that the outcome is well known, director Jay Roach, and the cast of actors, working from a script by Danny Strong, are able to brilliantly inject emotion and drama as the sequence of events unfold, with each new surprise forcing a re-evaluation of strategy.

There are two notables sub-themes that the movie crystallizes: the first is the portrayal of Katherine Harris as an administrator thrust into a history-defining leadership role that is far beyond her capabilities by events that are far out of her control. The second is the examination of an electoral system that is designed to deal well with large numbers where small errors are irrelevant and tolerable. What happens when such a system is forced to deal with very small numbers where every vote becomes important? In both these sub-themes there are good lessons and topics of discussion about leadership and system design that add significant long-term value to the film.

While Recount for the most part recreates real events and portrays real characters, an understandable amount of artistic licence is also exercised. This really only matters to the few individuals who passionately care about extreme accuracy. For the rest of us, the film is a tight and controlled look into one of the most dramatic political events in the history of the United States.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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