The Closest I’ll Come an Election Post: HBO’s Recount

This may be the most pointless review I’ve posted yet. In fact, it you don’t have HBO GO and aren’t currently considering watching the 8-year-old movie Recount, you might just want to skip to the end for a more general update from the blogger (that’s me!)

And yet, content no one care’s about is slightly better than no content at all… Right?


Film: Recount
Director: Jay Roach
Writer: Danny Strong
Primary Cast: Kevin Spacey, Bob Balaban, Denis Leary, Laura Dern, Tom Wilkinson, Ed Begley Jr., John Hurt, Jayne Atkinson
US Release Date: 25 May 2008

Recount (2008) begins and ends with loaded images. As the film opens, the camera shows numerous close-ups on a paper ballot, at the top of which are printed a title (“Official Ballot, General Election”), a place (“Palm Beach County, Florida”), and a date (“November 7, 2000”). Later, an entire box of ballots fills the frame. This shot is followed by one in which the camera and the viewer alike are left standing between rows of shelves filmed to the brim with such boxes in an otherwise empty hall.

Directed by Jay Roach, Recount dramatizes the controversial recount following the 2000 presidential election. With its first and final shots, the film urges viewers to consider democracy and the people behind each ballot. These images also direct them to contemplate the possibility of uncounted votes and unheard voices. Viewed after the fact, Recount’s opening is heavy with meaning, and its final seconds are almost haunting. And yet, as thought-provoking as the film’s visual bookends are, what unfolds between them is about as dull as it gets.

Like Roach’s  2015 biopic, Trumbo, Recount is flat, unengaging, and forgettable. It leans far too heavily on both the reputation of its cast and on the historically-sourced events driving its plot, and it brings nothing to the screen that a few quick glances at Wikipedia couldn’t also provide.

Recount represents Danny Strong’s first writing credit, and his inability to communicate the strange, far-reaching chaos of the Florida recount compellingly may stem from inexperience. Regardless, if viewers are bored by Recount, it’s because the film doesn’t give them enough reason to care about the story it’s trying to tell, and Strong’s ineffective script reduces any potential for lasting impact.

Though brief, Strong’s attempts at suspense do not work, and their ham-fisted execution is more likely to lose viewers than to interest them. An early sequence, in which senior Gore campaign members Ron Klain (Kevin Spacey) and Michael Whouley (Denis Leary) try to prevent Gore from making his concession speech, is one example. After a lot of shouting over the phone, the sequence culminates with a man named David Morehouse (Ethan S. Smith) limping frantically after Gore in the rain as a quickened score tries to ratchet up the tension. At one point, Morehouse even falls to the ground after crashing into a passerby. Whether things happened that way or not, the sequence is too ridiculous and overdone to feel accurate. Like some of Recount’s other attempt to capture the attention of viewers (including one in which Whouley throws a chair in anger), the moment rings false.

To dramatize “true” events is to fictionalize them—at least to an extent. That said, Roach and Strong clearly want Recount to appear factual; the film’s use of real news clips attests to the truth of what Recount depicts, as do the snippets of archival footage that accompany the end credits. For the most part, the film portrays real people, and its major plot points did occur. Even if the forces and consequences surrounding certain happenings (such as who would have won Florida if the media hadn’t prematurely called the state for Gore) are disputed, Recount sticks closely enough to the basic facts to remain informative for those ignorant of its particular moment in history.

But a film can be educational without being any good, and several moments in which Recount’s desire for authenticity actually hurts its ability to entertain illustrate this fact perfectly.

For instance, Jim Denault’s unsteady cinematography—which is characterized by a prevalence of close-ups and shaky, hand-held camerawork—is meant to place viewers within the film as informal observers. There is a subjective, intimate, and haphazard feel to many of Recount’s shots, which seek to connect the film to the “truer” realms of documentaries and home movies. Denault intends to convey authenticity with his work in Recount, but it is so conspicuous that it has the opposite effect. With well-known actors like Kevin Spacey and John Hurt on the screen, no one is likely to fall for such tricks anyway; in trying to conceal its artifice, Recount renders it more noticeable instead.

A similar misstep concerns the film’s presentation of Gore and Bush as characters. Roach presents the two men in an awkward and limited manner that only calls attention to the film’s artificial nature. Bush and Gore are heard numerous times in the film, but when they are seen in-person, their faces are never shown. Since Roach is insistent on not showing actors as the candidates, he should have just eliminated their physical presence. For, in deliberately hiding the faces of figures as familiar as Bush and Gore, Recount reminds audiences that it is a carefully constructed re-enactment while distracting from the drama it seeks to create.

If Recount’s more awkward attempts to appear truthful don’t entirely rob its story of impact, the fact that it fails to foster meaningful connection between viewers and its characters certainly does. Quick subtitles containing the name and occupation of the film’s key players aren’t enough to tell viewers who they are personally or to make them care about them in any significant way. Anyone who sees Recount should already know how it ends, so Roach is wrong to rely on plot to carry his film. Without fleshed-out characters who are developed beyond their names and political titles, Recount is dramatically unengaging and emotionally impotent.

The only person who is even vaguely interesting is Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, who is by far the most memorable part of film. Played by Laura Dern, Harris is a fascinating and genuinely terrifying figure. At once a monster and a puppet, Dern steals the scenes in which she appears, and the comparative depth she gives to her character only emphasizes how flat everyone around her is. Recount is full of other accomplished actors—including Spacey, Hurt, Tom Wilkinson, and Bob Balaban—but they are rendered ordinary by its under-developed script.

The one-dimensional nature of the film’s characters may lie in their over-abundance. In an attempt to appear fair, Recount presents two sides to its story. Figures from the Gore and Bush camps are both represented, and the film does not definitively state who it believes truly got the most votes. That said, it is not without bias. Ron Klain is the character viewers meet first, and he is clearly Recount’s protagonist. For all the time the film throws away on scenes depicting those working in Bush’s interest, it still privileges Ron by positioning him as its hero. In doing so, Roach sides with Gore.

Though the resulting film would have been less ideologically balanced, Recount could have been more entertaining and powerful if it had focused on one candidate’s camp and if it narrowed its field of players. In trying to obscure its bias, Recount risks boring viewers with a plodding narrative that loses momentum as it constantly shifts between sides. As it stands, the film’s attention is spread too thin to make for captivating viewing, and the sheer number of prominent characters prevents viewers from  becoming well-acquainted with any of them.

“We owe it to this country to find out the truth,” declares Ron Klain with conviction. But there is more to that truth than how many people voted. The truth at the heart of the Florida recount also concerns the sheer absurdity of American politics. The system can collapse at any moment, and it can do so for the tiniest of reasons. As much as society might like to pretend that democracy is a fair and reliable system, the events surrounding the 2000 presidential election make it clear that human error, arbitrary judgments, and sheer accident all wield considerable power, and any one of them could throw the world into chaos in an instant. In light of this, Recount could be an absolutely harrowing film that casts a shadow of doubt and uncertainty over the entire electoral system. It isn’t, and it doesn’t. Roach’s docudrama is mildly unsettling at its best, and it’s script fails to capitalize on any larger dramatic truths surrounding the debacle in Florida.

Until Next Time
As you may have noticed, I haven’t been posting much lately. I started grad school back in August, and at this point in the semester, it feels as if I’m perpetually in the weeds. I hope to get back to semi-regular (and at least somewhat current) reviews sometime in November. That said, even when I’m not posting here, you can still keep up with me on letterboxd and twitter.

Since my last post (which is on  The Girl on the Train and The Accountant), I’ve watched two other HBO films (The Life and Death of Peter Sellers and Living Dolls: The Making of a Child Beauty Queen), only one of which I’d bother giving a second look. I’ve also recently seen The Trouble with Harry (good), Daughters of the Dust (good), First Girl I Loved (sort of meh), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (raunchy gothic camp), and Bus 174 (profoundly upsetting).

I also managed to take my first real trip to a movie theater since watching Kubo and the Two Strings when I saw The Handmaiden last weekend. It’s flawed, but fantastically so. Go see it. Park Chan-wook goes hard, and The Handmaiden is a movie and a half. I wish I had time to write about it, but if I tried to slap something together right now, I wouldn’t even come close to doing it justice.

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