The end of the Bush presidency seems like an appropriate time to sift through the 2000 election's wreckage, with "Recount" serving as just the movie to help pick that scab.

The end of the Bush presidency seems like an appropriate time to sift through the 2000 election’s wreckage, with “Recount” serving as just the movie to help pick that scab. Smart, star-studded and anchored by another fine-tuned performance from Kevin Spacey, “Recount” finds the sweet spot between theatrical fare and TV that’s precisely the constituency HBO wants to reach — a bracing tonic for the pay net’s battered “It’s not TV” slogan. Some conservatives will surely howl at what they’ll perceive as a skewed representation of events, but there’s no accounting for sore winners.

Eight years, it turns out, was a proper interval to make this historic look back sing — revisiting that strange, relatively tiny window where hanging and dimpled chad (which is, oddly, the plural of chad) were all the rage.

Recreating those events with some artistic license, director Jay Roach (he of the “Austin Powers” franchise) and writer Danny Strong zero in on a central premise: That while the Republicans instantly recognized the situation in Florida as being “A street fight for the presidency of the United States” — as former Secretary of State and Bush fixer James Baker III (Tom Wilkinson) colorfully puts it — the Democrats characteristically dithered, initially trying to play a “gentlemen’s game.”

Notably, the two combatants, Al Gore and George W. Bush, are merely disembodied voices in the film. Instead, the movie primarily peers over the shoulder of Gore’s former chief of staff Ron Klain (Spacey), as well as a sprawling assortment of characters, with Baker as the centerpiece of the well-orchestrated, slightly dirty, occasionally thuggish GOP campaign to safeguard Bush’s slim margin of victory.

Klain almost by default leads the legal battle to get a recount of the Florida vote that determined the election, receiving little help from Democratic elder statesman Warren Christopher (John Hurt), who argues that with the world watching, “Chaos will not help our cause.”

If Baker comes across as shrewd and calculating, the Lady Macbeth of the piece is Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris (an inspired Laura Dern), whose garish makeup and yearning to please Republican poobahs paint her as a woman intoxicated by this moment in the spotlight.

Although the entire cast is first-rate, coming on the heels of Wilkinson’s scene-stealing portrayal of Ben Franklin in “John Adams,” HBO might want to consider putting the actor on permanent retainer for all future historical dramas. He manages to render Baker courtly, avuncular, ruthless and brilliant all at once, with relatively limited screen time.

Roach wraps the story in historical trappings, identifying each character with an onscreen tag and liberally employing newsclips — including Dan Rather at his Texas-adage-spoutin’ best — to punctuate events.

Certain flourishes, however, do seem ideologically driven and superfluous, among them signaling which president appointed each U.S. Supreme Court justice, or taking a detour to skewer then-Vice Presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman in absentia. Nevertheless, the final-credit crawl alongside actual news footage underscores how meticulous the filmmakers were with small details, and Dave Grusin’s score merits special accolades.

Klain sums up the uncertainty that still nags at many about the 2000 election, with Spacey saying ruefully that all he wants, finally, is “to know who really won.”

From that perspective, despite “Recount’s” whimsical tone, the fading Bush presidency provides the movie with its own rather poignant coda. Because given the variables in Florida’s mishandled balloting, there will forever be disagreement as to who won the Sunshine State. For the 70% of Americans who now disapprove of Bush’s job performance, however, there’s little doubt regarding who lost.


HBO, Sun. May 25, 9 p.m.


Filmed in Florida by Spring Creek/Mirage in association with Trigger Street Prods. and Everyman Pictures. Executive producers, Paula Weinstein, Len Amato, Sydney Pollack, Jay Roach; producer, Michael Hausman; co-producer, Danny Strong; director, Roach; writer, Strong.


Camera, Jim Denault; production designer, Patti Podesta; editor, Alan Baumgarten; music, Dave Grusin; casting, David Rubin, Richard Hinks. 116 MIN.


Ron Klain - Kevin Spacey Ben Ginsberg - Bob Balaban David Boies - Ed Begley Jr. Katherine Harris - Laura Dern Warren Christopher - John Hurt Michael Whouley - Denis Leary Mac Stipanovich - Bruce McGill James Baker III - Tom Wilkinson Mitchell Berger - Bruce Altman Theresa Lepore - Jayne Atkinson Clay Roberts - Gary Basaraba
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