Recount

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Memories of hanging chads and confusing ballots permeate our consciousness years after the heavily contested 2000 presidential election between Al Gore and George W. Bush. We saw this played out on the networks with all their furious coverage, but with “Recount” we get a look at what went on in the campaign offices while this election fight went on to get a picture of what they each felt was fair and just.

How you view “Recount” may depend on what side of the political spectrum you have placed yourself on. I’m not sure how accurate this movie is to the real events, but I imagine it is pretty close. Coming out of it, you may feel it values one candidate over the other. But in the end, “Recount” is not so much a movie about the fight to get candidates elected as it is about the fight for democracy. It is a fight for all the voters to be heard, and also a scary tale of how the fate of the Presidency can end up in the hands of a powerful few instead of America as a whole. Hopefully, this is something that we all collectively hope we never have to live through again.

“Recount” was directed by Jay Roach, best known as the director of the “Austin Powers” movies. Here, he directs a large cast of superlative actors who take the roles of many people we know well from the 2000 election and gives us a strong case of why many still thank Al Gore was robbed of the Presidency. Both Gore and Bush are basically supporting players here, and we only see them from the backs of their heads or in news footage of them during the campaign. The movie is more interested in what went on behind the scenes of the election and of the different fights made to get to the truth of who won the Florida electoral votes.

Even though we all know how this ended up and who got elected, the movie is still riveting in the same way “Apollo 13” was. The filmmakers are not so much interested in the general way things happened as they are in the specifics of the election. We see brilliantly shot examples of how chads in ballots could not be broken off as they were designed to. The opening shot of the movie shows how easily confused some Florida residents are when they are trying to vote, and yet it is not altogether clear how to vote for Gore so that you don’t accidentally vote for Pat Buchannan. The moment where one of Gore’s campaign workers rushes up to him before he is about to make his concession speech on the night of the election is scary as we all feel like we are running alongside him. Even after all these years, we have a strong emotional reaction to the thought of Gore conceding the election.

At the head of this star-studded cast is Kevin Spacey who gives one of his best performances as Ron Klain, Gore’s legal advisor on the campaign trail. The day before the election, it is presumed Gore is going to win, and Klain is offered a job in Gore’s new administration. Klain ends up turning it down as he feels it is not the way he wants to spend the next eight years of his life. But when it becomes clear there are clear inconsistencies in the voting in certain Florida counties, Klain goes right into action to make sure all the votes are recounted, as the margin of victory is only off by just over a thousand votes. Klain is aided by a large team of political strategists from Michael Whouley (Denis Leary) to Warren Christopher (John Hurt).

Spacey makes it clear from the start that Klain is an idealist more than anything else about the way the political system works. What he does throughout the movie is not motivated by his desire to see Gore become President, as he even admits he is not even sure he likes Gore, as it is by the desire to see all the votes counted and to not have any of them thrown out for different reasons like those rejected ones which contain the similar names of convicted felons. Because the election was so close, we can see in Spacey’s eyes how this election is much too important for anyone’s vote to be cast aside.

We also get great performances from actors like Ed Begley Jr. who plays David Boes who passionately fought for the recount to continue when testifying at the Supreme Court. Another great one comes from the always reliable Tom Wilkinson (“Michael Clayton”) who plays James Baker who fights on behalf of George W. Bush to turn the election his way. Wilkinson plays Baker as being idealistic in his own way, and he is almost as idealistic as Klain is for the democrats. Bruce McGill is also great here as Republican lobbyist Mac Stipanovich who is brought in to persuade Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris to stop the recount.

Speaking of Katherine Harris, who by the way wanted nothing to do with “Recount,” she is played here in a brilliant performance by Laura Dern. With makeup, which brings up harsh memories of Faye Dunaway in “Mommie Dearest,” Dern gives us a Katherine Harris who is not dumb, but who is oblivious to what is going on around her. Harris says she is following the law, but never really questions those around her as to what their true motives are. Dern is one of the best actresses working today, and this movie is a good reminder of this fact.

The other thing to note about “Recount” is how the actors do a great job of inhabiting their roles as opposed to impersonating people we have become all too familiar with. The trap of playing real life people is many actors end up playing them from the outside in instead of the inside out. It takes a group of well-trained actors to play these roles, and who are not mere impressionists or mimics. Mimicry is a cool art, but it doesn’t work in a movie like this one.

Roach does a great job of putting us back in the year 2000, and he makes you a witness to all the events to where even though you know how this race ended, you still hope and pray for a different outcome. He also shows how each candidate has to be grateful for the dozens of people and hundreds of supporters who helped them get to where they ended up. The truth is we haven’t had many movies recently which have looked at the people who work so hard for the politicians they support, and these people need to be thanked for all they do. They can’t stay behind the scenes forever. They need to be seen for who they are.

In the end, “Recount” is not so much a movie about how Gore got screwed out of an election he won the popular vote on. It’s not even about if Gore lost the election. It is about how democracy was lost in the 2000 election, and of how many voices were rendered irrelevant for reasons which were not altogether justified. The final scene of the warehouse where all those uncounted votes is haunting, and it  feels like an outtake of the scene from “Raiders of The Lost Ark” where the Ark of the Covenant got stored in a factory holding hundreds of boxes which all look alike. The real victim of this election was all the voters were not heard, and this left a shadow over George W. Bush’s presidency which will never be erased.

It also serves as an important document of this moment in history which we can never forget. We need to remember what happened so it never happens again.

* * * * out of * * * *

The Ides of March

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This movie’s title refers to the day Julius Caesar was assassinated by a group of senators who feared his role as a dictator would forever destroy their constitutional government. Some of these senators were close friends of his which make their actions all the more shocking. In the political arena, then and now, you would think those running for office would have their friends and loyal advisors to instill their trust in. But as history shows, the quest for power can tear friendships apart and corrupt the seemingly incorruptible. In William Shakespeare’s play of “Julius Caesar,” a soothsayer warns him before he is stabbed to death:

“Beware the Ides of March.”

George Clooney’s film is based on the play “Farragut North” by Beau Willimon, and it looks at how dangerous a political campaign can be for all those involved. They may not get stabbed in the back literally, but there is a lot of backstabbing to go around figuratively speaking. It all makes for an intense political thriller which never lets up.

Ryan Gosling stars as Stephen Meyers, a Junior Campaign Manager for Governor Mike Norris (Clooney) who is seeking the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. As the movie opens, Norris is campaigning in Ohio where a win there will all but guarantee him the nomination. Meyers is a strong believer in Norris and what he stands for, but his belief in him and the world of politics is in for a rude awakening. After a secret meeting with rival campaign manager Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), trust becomes a precious commodity in very short supply. Meyers also stumbles on an even bigger situation which could destroy the campaign to where it can never recover.

This is Clooney’s fourth movie as a director, and the abilities he shows behind the camera are never in doubt. “The Ides of March” doesn’t necessarily break any new ground in the political movie genre, but Clooney does great work in generating tension throughout as characters suddenly find themselves on a precipice which threatens to fall out beneath them with little warning. He also gets great performances from the entire cast as they face off against each other as if they are playing a game of chess. Everyone is holding their cards close to their chest, and only the eyes can give them away in showing where they are most vulnerable.

Gosling had a heck of a year in 2011 with this, “Crazy Stupid Love,” and “Drive.” As with the latter, he brings a smoldering intensity to his performance as he takes Meyers from a political idealist to one who sells out his values when things get rough. With one look, he can let us inside his thoughts without saying a single word.

Two of my favorite performances in “The Ides of March” come from two of the best character actors ever: Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti. Playing campaign managers for their individual candidates, they brilliantly bring out the moral complexities of each person as their agendas become clear as the story continues to unfold. Both of them also make what could have been seen as convoluted actions or maneuvers completely believable as they try to get the upper hand in a fragile political environment. They essentially represent the cynical side of politics where idealism vanished a long time ago and the path Meyers may be forced to go down if he wants to continue working in this realm.

The fabulous Evan Rachel Wood is great as always as Molly Stearns, a campaign intern whose confidence collapses when her secret is realized. Seeing her go from a sexy seducer to the campaign’s most vulnerable employee is handled by her like a pro, and she makes us see Molly as a person while others view as a crippling concern which needed to be quickly and quietly removed. The cruelty of politics comes to hit her character the hardest.

And then there’s the equally fabulous Marisa Tomei who portrays New York Times reporter Ida Horowicz. She enjoys a friendly banter with Gosling from the start which draws us in on a more personal level. It’s there where Tomei traps not just Gosling, but the audience as well. She provides us with a friendly face, but she is later revealed to be a manipulative journalist who wields more power than you might expect a journalist to have. I have yet to see Tomei give a bad performance in anything she does.

What I really like about the screenplay of “The Ides of March” is it’s not about good guys and bad guys. It’s all about shades of gray and how the hope in politics can be easily and quickly worn down to a cinder of what it once was. Some of the actions in the movie almost feel like something out of the “Saw” movies as they almost seem illogical and impossible to put together, but it makes sense in regards to the political realm it takes place in. This would make a great double feature with Mike Nichols’ “Primary Colors” as both movies deal with the moral compromises made in getting your candidate elected. But while “Primary Colors” sees a light at the end of the tunnel, “The Ides of March” doesn’t let the viewer off as easy.

* * * ½ out of * * * *