May 16, 2016
Movies that Predicted Trump: Recount (2008)
This is part of a series of reviews we’re calling Movies that Predicted Trump, where we discuss the films that foretold (in ways both large and small) the election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States. (Read the other reviews in this series: Idiocracy, Bulworth, Bob Roberts, A Face in the Crowd, Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, The Dead Zone, All the King’s Men, The Candidate, Star Trek “Turnabout Intruder”, and The Campaign)
Recount is a 2008 docudrama that details the infamous Bush v. Gore legal challenge at the climax of the 2000 US presidential election, the one where George W. Bush managed to defeat Al Gore thanks to the Electoral College despite losing the popular vote, in much the same way as Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in 2016. Clinton ultimately won the popular vote by a much larger margin than Gore did 16 years earlier—nearly 3 million to his half a million—but none of that tipped things in her favor in any state that mattered. In 2000, however, a scandal over how votes were counted meant that Al Gore might have won Florida, and if he had won Florida then he would have won the election, which resulted in a month-long campaign by the Democrats to push for a statewide recount. The movie delves into the legal and political chess match/mud-slinging contest that followed, as both Republicans and Democrats do everything they can to ensure their candidate wins the election.
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This film doesn’t anticipate Trump per se, but it does make worthwhile watching to reflect on the 2016 race in general, and the way partisan divisions have become so entrenched in America that the country seems to be teetering ever closer to civil war with each election cycle. Near the end of the film, James Baker (Republican), played by Tom Wilkinson, congratulates his team and his nation that no matter how vicious things got at times, the campaign never descended into outright violence or mob rule, and peaceful democracy prevailed yet again, something that in hindsight seems to be verging on willful ignorance, especially considering the sporadic instances of violence that have occurred both during and after the 2016 election.
Aside from Wilkinson, the movie features an impressive all-star cast: Kevin Spacey stars as de facto protagonist Ron Klain (Democrat), a lawyer leading the Gore campaign and Gore’s former Chief of Staff while he was Vice President; John Hurt gets a small role as former Secretary of State Warren Christopher (D); Laura Dern plays Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris (R); Dennis Leary is (a swear-ier version of) political consultant Michael Whouley (D), Bob Balaban is lawyer Ben Ginsberg (R)… the list goes on, and many of the cast were nominated for Emmys, with Jay Roach managing to nab one of his own for directing, and the film itself earned the award for Outstanding Made for TV Movie. All in all, it’s a tense, believable, well-crafted piece of movie-making that illustrates the complexities and aggressiveness of modern US politics in microcosm. While it takes artistic license with the dialogue and some of the characters (the real Ron Klain, for example, thought the film overstated his role in things), it is otherwise meticulously researched and has the whiff of actually authenticity about it, and mostly sticks to the facts of what actually happened (outside of, for instance, the details of various private conversations).
The film is basically a class in how tactical and nasty political campaigns can get behind the scenes, and how one’s interpretation of rules, statements, and laws can be predicted by party allegiance; how seemingly spontaneous acts of protest can be carefully managed and organized affairs that can be co-opted (and in some cases, masterminded) by the political powers that be, and how far both parties are willing to go to secure each and every advantage (no matter how small) to attain victory. Lawyers and lobbyists are treated almost as hitmen, such as Democrat David Boeis (Ed Begley Jr.) and Republican Mac “The Knife” Stipanovich (Bruce McGill), both brought in to help the respective campaigns, and both portrayed as if they were secret weapons. Legal strategies are conceived of in darkened rooms in Florida mansions as if the participants were organizing an assassination, and all of it both matters immensely yet is symptomatic of a deeper problem with the level of ruthless determination everyone is willing to go to achieve their ends.
Republicans are portrayed (not exactly inaccurately) in the worst light here, with Republican activists on the ground resorting to deliberate trouble-making, intimidation, and death threats to disrupt the recount, though the real Baker and Ginsberg apparently didn’t see it that way, as they both gave the film good reviews and Baker even hosted a screening of it. The Democrats, while generally shown taking the moral high road, are still willing to go to some fairly shady lengths to win, especially after the Republicans resort to ever dirtier tactics, though this may be a bit less accurate: one scene, where Hurt’s Warren Christopher wastes time trying to convince Wilkinson’s Baker to conduct themselves orderly and fairly (and is swiftly rebuffed), was entirely made up for the movie, and both Baker and Christopher derided the film for Hurt’s portrayal and scenes like this that make Warren Christopher out to be moderate and reasonable, regarding it as actually making him look like a wimp. In real life, both men and both parties were determined to win at all costs, and had been using every trick in the book throughout the campaign, not just at the tail end; both also saw this as entirely normal.
Campaigns in general, and US presidential campaigns in particular are, when one gets right down to it, glorified, high-stakes competitions, and whether the average voter of either party knows or accepts this or not, they are prizes and pawns and tend to be treated as such, even if they’re told or tell each other different. In real life, most campaigners know that the majority of the electorate have already made up their minds who they’re going to vote for years in advance of the election, and are pursuing the votes of a small but crucial minority who will swing the results one way or the other. But if they pursue them with fanaticism, it’s only because they know the other side is doing the same.
Regardless of the policies, character, or intentions of the candidates and their respective teams, politics itself is a dirty business, and playing it fairly is less than unwise. It’s impractical and impossible given the nature of the game. Although the Republicans are shown to be quicker to rely on cheap tricks (or to have relied on them throughout the campaign) such as ensuring that Democrat-leaning areas were using a flimsy type of ballot (with the so-called hanging chads) that made it harder to vote or decide which way someone voted, there are nonetheless True Believers all throughout their ranks who really do think both that their party is in the right and that the Democrats are resorting to weak and pedantic arguments to make their case, and that they’ve done so in the past, and people on both sides have been playing this game for decades and are often friends or family of other prominent players. Case in point, Balaban’s Ginsberg sees Democrat Bill Daley (played by Mitch Pileggi of X-Files fame) making the Democratic case for a recount on television and is morally outraged, as Daley is the son of former Chicago mayor Richard Daley who presided over the allegedly rigged election that saw Kennedy beat Nixon in that city and win the White House.
In other words, it isn’t just political beliefs that divide these characters (or the people they’re based on): it is tribalism, grudges, and loyalties of both professional and personal natures. Baker, near the end, shows that he’s working not so much for the Republican Party as he is for George H. W. Bush and the Bush family in general, who are close friends of his who helped him through rough times; Spacey’s Ron Klain admits that he doesn’t actually like Al Gore all that much, yet he also has a long, complicated history with him and wishes Gore respected him more, which gives him an added impetus once he’s effectively promoted to leading the campaign after Warren Christopher has to bow out due to a family emergency.
Everybody is motivated by pride and ego as much as anything else, exhausted but determined to win and believing they’re truly right, with varying degrees of cause: the Democrats have a point since the Republicans, who run Florida through George W. Bush’s brother Jeb, make it as hard as possible for the ordinary voter to support the Democrats, are shown to have policies that unfairly hamper Democrat-leaning minorities from voting at all, and have the dim-witted, proto-Sarah Palin Katherine Harris as their obstructionist bureaucrat on the scene in charge of enforcing the rules of the recount, or whether or not there will even be one until the courts have to intervene. The Republicans, by contrast, are understandably frustrated, since Gore conceded defeat before taking it back because he saw a chance to maybe gather a few more votes that may or not win him the election. Who’s in the right legally at each phase of the battle really depends on which party the judges in question belong to, and even many Democrats (including Gore) come to question if this is all worthwhile, or if they’re just dragging things out and undermining the electoral system.
To quote screenwriter Danny Strong, “The film is not about who should have won. 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?” The film is, first and foremost, a look at and a commentary on the ever-increasing insanity that is modern US presidential elections. It’s absolutely tame compared to the last presidential election in many respects, yet the events it portrays both anticipate and perhaps even set the stage for the powder keg of emotion, competition, and radicalization that 2016 was, and it gives a sense of foreboding about elections to follow if things continue on the path they have been treading for so many years now.