'Recount' gives mostly balanced account of 2000 Presidential election

Still, protests from Republicans and Democrats flow in

Where were you on the Night Florida Ate the Presidency?

I could only, of course, be talking about Election Night 2000. And naturally, you were in the same place as everyone else: parked in front of your TV set, jaw agape, eyes bugged out in disbelief, as the network anchors called Florida (and the election) first for Al Gore, then for George W. Bush, then for no one. The numbers seemed too insane to be real, with a scant few thousand -- no, a few hundred -- votes determining who would become the leader of the free world.

Things haven't really been quite the same since that night. What little trust anyone had in the political process more or less evaporated that evening in a blur of butterfly ballots, hanging chads and unmitigated chaos. You no longer can say or write anything having to do with politics without being charged with partisanship, stoking anger on at least one side and often both. This marked the beginning of the red state/blue state chasm in the U.S. that ultimately has turned us all purple.

Now try to imagine the task faced by Danny Strong, a veteran TV actor (he was a regular on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Gilmore Girls") who decided that his first produced screenplay should center on the most controversial and divisive presidential election in American history.

That Strong's film, "Recount," sold to longform bastion HBO and was cast with an all-star team of performers will perhaps merely fuel the firestorm that's already starting to greet the movie in advance of its premiere May 25, in the middle of an election-year campaign that's already been plenty ugly and looks like it's about to get uglier.

Do the words "no-win situation" mean nothing to Strong?

"Well, I can't take a lot of credit for the timing, but I'm prepared to defend how we tell the story," he says. "I poured a lot of research time into books and articles and interviews, and I think what comes through is the essence of the truth. I couldn't believe how little of this information was in the common psyche, how people just didn't know what happened during those 36 days on the streets of Florida."

What can get filmmakers in trouble when dealing with ripped-from-the-headlines political hot potatoes is that vague, discomforting phrase "essence of the truth." Using composites and speculation to dramatize the events of recent history is almost guaranteed to stimulate a vocal backlash, as was the case in 2006 with ABC's left-skewering "The Path to 9/11" and the 2003 miniseries "The Reagans" that CBS was pressured into shelving, ultimately shipping it to sister Showtime.

Right on cue, a protest has erupted among Democrats who maintain that certain individuals portrayed in "Recount," particularly former Secretary of State Warren Christopher (played by John Hurt), are shown to be weak and wussy, according to a piece last week in the New York Times.

By all accounts, however, HBO is proud of the film -- as well it should be. It's a compelling, energetic and mostly even-handed piece of work that, yes, casts the Gore team (in particular Gore's former chief of staff, Ron Klain, portrayed by Kevin Spacey) as the righteous crusaders and the Bush gang (led by chief Republican adviser James A. Baker III, played by Tom Wilkinson) as the cunning, smarmy aggressors who do everything in their power to stonewall a ballot recount.

Strong insists that "Recount" is "not a left-wing polemic" and comes across "as critical of the Democrats as it is the Republicans." But it surely will be noted by some conservatives that Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris is depicted by Laura Dern as a self-absorbed buffoon and that when Bush-friendly characters are onscreen the music often swells ominously.

"We weren't concerned with balance so much as accuracy, fairness and letting everyone have their say," Strong says. "It was about not letting our politics show in how we tell the tale."

That Strong and his cohorts largely if not entirely succeed on that score won't prevent them from being charged with putting forth an agenda during a critical time in a hotly contested presidential race. (Duh!) Yet if Hollywood and Washington make for oft-combustive bedfellows, it's equally clear that they can't keep their hands off each other.

Ray Richmond can be reached at ray.richmond@THR.com.