[I]nasmuch as the post-election battle reflected the character of the candidates, the nature of their parties, and the state of contemporary politics, there was something else, too: random chance.

— Jeffrey Toobin, Too Close to Call (2001)

The Bible says we are to be salt and light. And salt and light means not just in the church and not just as a teacher or as a pastor or a banker or a lawyer, but in government and we have to have elected officials in government and we have to have the faithful in government and over time, that lie we have been told, the separation of church and state, people have internalized, thinking that they needed to avoid politics and that is so wrong because God is the one who chooses our rulers.

Katherine Harris, Florida Baptist Witness (4 August 2006)

“There’s a problem with the numbers.” So notices Michael Whouley (Denis Leary), chief field operative for Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign. He’s checking the votes in Florida, his computer monitor blinking with figures as he blanches. Though he and the rest of the team have been swallowing the TV news declarations of George W. Bush’s victory, here Whouley sees something else.

His revelation comes at the beginning of Recount, HBO’s jauntily entertaining version of that much-debated election. If it’s vaguely eerie that the film’s premiere on 25 May coincides with current ado over popular, delegate, and electoral counts, it’s also germane to the film’s essential point. That is, the oft-repeated claim that “the system works” is by definition duplicitous, ironic, and right, all at the same time. Indeed, when James Baker (Tom Wilkinson) makes that very declaration at the end of Recount, it’s enough to send shivers down your spine. Though Recount doesn’t press the case, it seems plain enough that the system remains infinitely gameable for those who know it, those in power who wish to remain in power.

As Recount recounts, the 2000 election came down, more or less technically, to a few hundred votes in Florida. The fight over how to count votes begins when Whouley calls Ron Klain (Kevin Spacey), Gore’s former chief of staff, at that moment temping as an exit poller. Though grumpy because he was passed over for a choice campaign position, Ron’s interest is piqued by news of the apparent error. And so he and Whouley start making calls, insisting that the Vice President hold off on his concession speech (this intervention is rendered with all kinds of drama, including a thunderstorm and a breathless aide catching up with Gore and Tipper just as they’re about to reach the announcement stage), and locating legal experts to argue for the recount, required when a vote is so close.

A series of scenes sets the contentious tone for what follows: when Gore withdraws his concession, Bush responds with the sort of childish tone for which he has long since become famous: “My little brother has assured me that I’ve won Florida!” Cut to archival footage of CNN’s Candy Crowley, reporting the retraction. Cut again to one of the more infamous and visible players, Florida Secretary of State Katherine “Kitty” Harris (Laura Dern), awakened by a phone call from Jeb Bush (Matt Miller), demanding that she fix it: “What are the final numbers?” Little Brother demands. “Who won Florida?” The next morning, as the Dems gin up for battle, the key term for the ensuing farce is named when recount lawyer Jack Young (Steve DuMouchel) asks, “Anybody here ever heard of a chad?” (The fact that he’s identified as a “recount lawyer” in itself gives pause.)

Young’s question frames the film’s version of events, that is, all the legal and media commotions are premised on unknowns. Experts begin making up tactics and answers to questions that have never been asked before, suggesting that faith in any sort of system is unfounded. The clash becomes a series of increasingly convoluted and sensational maneuvers in order to block or push forward recounts, both by machine and hand, by selected counties or statewide. The differences between the strategies are established in a lively bit of crosscutting, as the teams assemble. The Dems call in Warren Christopher (John Hurt), his manner measured and courteous, while Baker arrives on the scene like a gunslinger, ready for a “street fight.”

While this simple opposition troubles some Democrats, it serves rudimentary dramatic purposes, pitting the noble Gore team (Ron is the film’s protagonist) against the less morally restrained Bushies. Christopher takes the high road (“The world is watching: we are theoretically its last great democracy. If we cannot resolve this in a way that is worthy of the office we seek, what kind of hope will we give other countries that wish to share our values?”), but Baker lets loose all sorts of dogs, including madcap, TV-ready demonstrators (a small plane dragging a banner that reads “Surrender Gore-thy,” a fuzzy green monster called the Gore-Inch, and a man in a diaper whining, “I want a recount!”). The effect of all this hubbub, the movie suggests, is to make the public impatient for a solution. In turn, this presses the genteel Christopher to back off when Baker and his minions to dive in headfirst.

The most spectacular of these is Kitty Harris, a ferocious self-caricature even before Recount got hold of her. “You never know where life is gonna lead you,” she philosophizes on emerging from the bathroom in the carefully applied crazy-lady eye shadow that became her signature, “Ten years ago I was teaching the chicken dance to seniors. I’ve been thrust into an electoral tempest of historical dimensions and the eyes of the world have landed on me!” The film cuts to one of Harris’ more lurid performances, as she announces that she can not grant an extension to count votes except in case of a natural disaster, say, a hurricane. The Gore team watches on their office TV, appalled, inviting you to feel the same way.

Such feeling is presumed in part because the movie’s tragic punch-line is the election of George W. Bush. After all the demonstrating, counting (and more counting), late-night joking, and legal appealing — even the arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court, which grants extended minutes to the righteous reasoning by Gore’s attorney David Boies (Ed Begley Jr.), the end is foregone. Though the movie mentions possible other issues — minority voters turned away at the polls, Florida’s official purge list, imperfect Diebold voting machines, inexplicably quarrelsome county workers — it keeps focus on the good-and-bad fighters in court. Assuming that you share its sense of outrage at what Jim Baker and Supremes wrought (in a decision they declared a one-off, not applicable to any future rulings), the movie offers easy targets and conclusions. But to intimate there was a way to “win” if only everyone had played fair, Recount has to back off the entrenched problems and the more horrific conclusion, that the system is rigged and no matter who plays it, the end is the same.

RATING 6 / 10