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Bush vs. Gore, one more time

HBO's 'Recount' takes a look at the contested Florida vote in 2000, hanging chads and all.

May 19, 2008|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- When screenwriter Danny Strong started interviewing the protagonists of the 2000 presidential recount two years ago for his HBO movie on the subject, Ron Klain had one request.

"I told him that my only real interest in this film is if you tell me it's going to have a different ending," said Klain, who was then-Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore's senior legal advisor in Florida.

But Strong was not interested in rewriting history. He conceived of "Recount," which premieres Sunday on HBO, as a dramatic retelling of the 36-day legal battle between Gore and his Republican opponent, George W. Bush, through the varied perspectives of the players in both camps. The movie would not take sides; it would hew to the historical record.

"The film is not about who should have won," said Strong. "This movie is about our electoral process and gives us an intimate look at how this process went down in one particular state. And then it sort of asks the American people: Is this how you want to elect a president?"

But making an even-handed depiction of such a polarizing chapter in U.S. history is no easy task, particularly when it's debuting in the midst of a frenzied political season. So it's no surprise that "Recount" has already drawn complaints about distortions from some of those represented on-screen, including former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who was a top Gore advisor.

In defending the movie's accuracy, HBO has touted the amount of research that went into its making. Strong interviewed 40 people who were directly involved in the complex legal fight, and he relied heavily on four books about the recount penned by journalists. The authors -- the New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin, Newsweek's David A. Kaplan, Time's David Von Drehle and ABC News' Jake Tapper -- were all consultants on the film.

"We wanted to make this feel as authentic as possible and rooted in the best journalism that we could," said Colin Callendar, head of HBO Films.

But the movie also relies heavily on dramatization, blending factual events with fictional dialogue and scenes. The person perhaps most ambivalent about its approach is Klain -- played by Kevin Spacey as a once-exiled aide who fights vigorously to keep Gore's chances alive.

"It does a really powerful job of capturing the feel of the 36 days and the insanity of it all," Klain said, noting that in the nearly eight years since, "no one has succeeded in bringing this to a mass audience in an accessible way. I think that's a very important thing to do."

Still, Klain, now general counsel for a private investment firm, said the movie overemphasizes his role. And he cautioned that it should not be viewed as a journalistic enterprise. "If people watch the film and think this is the complete story of what had happened, they're going to be missing a lot," he said. "A lot of really complex and nuanced debates we had about strategy ended up getting oversimplified into 10-second conversations.

"It's a film," he added. "Not a history book."

Director Jay Roach said he's not under any illusion that the movie will be viewed as the definitive take on the recount.

"We just tried to be fair and to capture the essence of the truth," said Roach, who has directed such comedy blockbusters as "Meet the Parents" and the "Austin Powers" series. "You can't tell the whole story of the recount, of thousands of people over 30 days. But we thought if the audience saw we were diligent, they couldn't dismiss it, no matter what side they were on."

Indeed, Spacey said he believes the movie's sensibilities will surprise viewers.

"Rather than what people might expect, which is that it's some sort of political polemic or boring history film, it's actually more of a thriller," he said.

If the 2000 recount -- a confounding mess of undervotes, hanging chads and vague election laws -- seems unlikely material for a cinematic drama, then the origin of the film is even more improbable.

The movie sprang from an unexpected source: Strong is an actor best known for his roles on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Gilmore Girls." An aspiring screenwriter who had written several unsold comedies, Strong was inspired to try something different after seeing David Hare's play "Stuff Happens," which traces the buildup to the war in Iraq.

In crafting the script, he relied heavily on public documents and interviews with the key players. But Strong noted that he wrote "95% of the dialogue" and concocted scenes for dramatic effect. (An encounter on an airport tarmac between Klain and former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, played by Tom Wilkinson, never happened, for example.)

"We feel that the film is accurate, but we're very clear to say that it's a movie. It's not a documentary," Strong said.

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