HBO film re-examines 2000 Florida vote

Former secretary of state James Baker calls “Recount,” HBO’s upcoming take on the 2000 Florida vote, “a very entertaining film to watch.”

His counterpart, former secretary of state Warren Christopher, who led Al Gore’s team, told the New York Times that his portrayal is “pure fiction.”

The divergent views beg the inevitable observation: If victory is measured by landing George W. Bush in the White House, the Republicans won the recount. Have they also won Hollywood’s first recounting of the recount?

The film, from screenwriter Danny Strong and director Jay Roach, is a quick-paced, slightly irreverent, slightly pedantic rendering of what went on in the post-election frenzy of that unforgettable yearin which the next leader of the free world was in doubt for 36 days. Much time has passed, but it still stings in the minds of many Democrats, convinced that Al Gore ultimately would have won the state had the Supreme Court not ruled the way it did.

So you’d think that merely by illuminating what went on, the film’s POV would tilt toward the Democrats. How could it not? It’s largely told through the eyes of Ron Klain (Kevin Spacey), Gore’s former chief of staff and counsel on the recount. Florida secretary of state Katherine Harris (Laura Dern) comes across as a mere puppet, her moves directed by the GOP and party lobbyist Mac Stipanovich (Bruce McGill). Moreover, as Baker himself points out, the movie is “pretty sympathetic to the Democratic position, but that is understandable because they won the popular vote and not the electoral college.”

Yet anyone expecting a clear-cut diatribe on stealing elections is in for disappointment.

Roach and Strong say they went to great lengths to be evenhanded, presenting multiple points of view, and even sending copies of the script to Baker and others. Strong interviewed Christopher, but told the Times he decided not to send him a script because “I didn’t feel that he was being totally candid in our interview.” He said in a later interview that only the real-life counterparts to major characters were sent scripts — Christopher’s part is not as substantial as others. Roach says, “Our main thing was to be as true to history as we could, so people could watch it without feeling ‘propagandized.’ ”

In so doing, it’s hard not to marvel at the GOP for its audacity — just as it has been in subsequent presidential elections. After all, aren’t we all waiting for what the 527s spring on Barack Obama?

The movie also frames the Florida fiasco as a “street fight” — with Baker and his team ready, willing and full of chutzpah while Christopher’s team initially hesitated.

From the standpoint of “Recount,” there is little doubt the Democrats were ultimately outmaneuvered. Baker and Christopher are highly regarded elder statesmen of their respective parties, but in “Recount,” Baker is shrewd, even ruthless, while Christopher is too willing to sit down and talk it through, too worried about what a protracted battle might look like to the international community.

Baker has some polite gripes about the way he and Christopher are portrayed (“They made me out to be a little more like Don Corleone than I really am.”), but he otherwise recognizes, “There are things in there that are not true, but that is because it is a movie. … Movies like to simplify gray and complex issues into black and white images.”

He objected to an ending in a script he saw in which a final message flashes across the screen: “We will never know for certain who won Florida.”

“I wrote them a letter where I said, ‘Wait a minute. We know who won Florida,’ ” Baker says. “The person who won Florida has been president for seven years. He was sworn in by the chief justice of the Supreme Court.”

He doesn’t know if he inspired the change, but the message does not appear in the final version of the film.

Baker can’t be too concerned; on May 20, the James A. Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice U is hosting a screening of “Recount,” followed by a discussion on electoral reform with Baker and former president Jimmy Carter.

Christopher has not yet seen the movie, but he has seen transcripts of his scenes. He’s upset for a number of reasons, among them that he was interviewed only after production began, and learned about the project through his tailor, who had been enlisted by the production to remake one of his suits. Christopher told the Times that “much of what the author has written about me is pure fiction. It contained events that never occurred, words I never spoke and decisions attributed to me that I never made.”

But the picture also opens other wounds of a period that some involved would just as soon forget. At one point, exasperated after the GOP stages what came to be known as the “Brooks Brothers riot,” Klain remarks, “You know what is funny about all this? I am not even sure I like Al Gore.” It’s a fresh reminder that Gore, now a Nobel laureate and rehabilitated in the public consciousness, ran a campaign often short on enthusiasm. (Gore hasn’t seen the film, so a spokeswoman said he had no comment).

Strong, familiar for his roles in “Gilmore Girls” and “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer,” defends the movie’s license as based on extensive interviews and books, including Jeffrey Toobin’s account, “Too Close to Call.” While some characters say lines they never really uttered, it is still in the spirit of what happened, he says. And as for Christopher, Strong says his portrayal also can be viewed as “honorable.”

“Maybe this wasn’t the best tactic for a street fight, but he was very honorable” in worrying about how a protracted election fight would look to other countries, Strong says.

“The goal,” Strong adds, “was to get everyone’s point of view expressed.”

That was true right down to the film’s finale — a chance meeting on an airport tarmac between Baker (Tom Wilkinson) and Klain. That meeting never really happened, but Baker calls it a “nice, bipartisan way to end the movie.”

Those who don’t like the way it ends can always wait for the next chapter in the saga, likely to have a much different approach to this recent history. Oliver Stone’s “W,” about the current president, is scheduled for release in October.

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