Saturday, May 31, 2008

Every Vote Counts

Bit of a heated debate on Pop Culture America with John and Dave this afternoon. And it was all about ...

Recount (d. Jay Roach)

This whole democracy thing is supposed to be simple. Every couple of years, we all cast our ballots for the guy/gal we hate the least and then whoever gets more votes gets to run the show until he/she is caught. Nothing could be clearer.

We like to believe that every single vote counts, that it's conceivable any one vote could put a candidate in office. But what if it was really, really close? Imagine an election of 100 million votes that came down to a few hundred one way or the other. What would that be like?

No need to imagine because we've already lived through it back in the 2000 presidential race, and the political circus that ensued is the subject of Jay Roach's newest film for HBO, Recount. In 2000, the most powerful position on earth hung by a partially detached chad, and the insanity of that strangest moment in recent history lends itself all too easily to a political satire made more frightening by the fact that it doesn't require exaggeration.

Recount focuses on Ron Klain (Kevin Spacey), a former Al Gore Chief of Staff exiled in 2000 to a low-level campaign management position. He tallies exit poll numbers and spouts talking points to reporters and can't shake the bitterness he felt when the Vice President sacked him. When the Florida returns go back and forth on election night, Klain finds himself at the center of the political machinations.

His opposite numbers on the Republican side are also set scrambling by the razor-thin margin. Soon both sides have called in big guns in the form of ex-Secretaries of State: Warren Christopher for the Dems and Bush family consiglieri James Baker for the GOP. Those two men embody the opposite poles of philosophy and strategy at the core of the conflict with Christopher mouthing high-minded truisms about how "the whole world is watching" and Baker proclaiming "a street fight for the presidency."

Also thrust, not unwillingly, onto center stage is Florida Secretary of State (and Bush Florida Campaign Manager) Katherine Harris. Like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, she believes she's ready for her close-up, and at first she relishes the opportunity to stand before the banks of microphones and cameras. But after taking some hits in the media -- and becoming the butt of late-night comedians' jokes about her hair and make-up -- she grows twitchy and unsure, hiding behind the advice of counsel to avoid speaking with the press.

The top-notch cast takes on these real-life roles from the not-too-distant past and puts a deft satirical spin on them. Particularly good are Denis Leary as Klain's right-hand man, Michael Whouley, and Laura Dern as Harris.

Leary's explanation of the chad situation sounds like Chico Marx delineating the ins and outs of the Sanity Clause to Groucho in A Night at the Opera. And as Harris, Dern becomes a naive, grinning, crazed, clown-faced monster. A crueler reviewer than I would point out how accurate she is.

I wouldn't do that.

Director Roach displays a surprisingly confident hand in finessing this difficult, talky, complex material. He's a talented comedy director with the (very funny) Austin Powers movies and the (fairly funny) Meet the Parents franchise under his belt, but nothing in those unsubtle films indicated that he had a skillful and insightful political satire in him. Recount is just that, good enough to stand with the best political comedies in recent memory, films like Primary Colors, The Candidate and Wag the Dog.

What Recount discovers is that this country has developed a political culture where the skills, attitudes and strategies that win elections are not just different from the ones that lead to good governance, they are positively antithetical. To win an election, you can never negotiate, never compromise, never deviate from your talking points, remain always on the offense, deny everything, insist on your ideology no matter what the facts might dictate, and remain loyal to party and person over country. It works.

But once you're in office, what happens if you apply those same principles to your administration?

If only we had to imagine ...

3 1/2 stars.

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