'537 Votes': TV Review

537 Votes
Courtesy Getty and HBO
A fun doc about a not-very-fun moment for American democracy.
10/21/2020

Billy Corben's HBO documentary, executive produced by Adam McKay, traces the chaos of the 2000 Florida recount back to the controversy surrounding Elian Gonzalez.

Because HBO is looking out for its audience, the premium cable giant is offering viewers — no doubt exhausted from months cooped up at home and weeks of mounting paranoia about a potentially rigged election — a trip to Florida this Wednesday.

Granted that Billy Corben's 537 Votes is the Florida-centric story of the rigging of the 2000 election, or at least its last chapter; if you were looking for your escape in the form of an extended commercial for Sunshine State theme parks, that's what Disney+ is for. Instead, 537 Votes gives us a solid recontextualizing of the saga of undervotes, hanging chads and Supreme Court high jinks you think you understand and remember, all through Corben's Floridian perspective.

Jay Roach established much of the template for how we remember the chaos after the 2000 election in his 2008 HBO telefilm Recount, which began with the election on Nov. 7 and concluded with the SCOTUS-mandated cessation of vote tallying on Dec. 12 of that year.

Corben, whose documentary credits include Cocaine Cowboys and the ESPN 30 for 30 offering The U, acknowledges Recount and includes several scenes from the movie in 537 Votes. But his broader focus is on one tumultuous year in the life of Miami. More specifically, 537 Votes kicks into gear at Thanksgiving 1999, when 5-year-old Elian Gonzalez was found floating in an inner tube three miles off the Florida coast.

The subsequent kerfuffle surrounding Gonzalez and his potential return to his father in Cuba inflamed Miami's powerful Cuban community and became a partisan powder keg. What ensued isolated vice president and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore from much of Bill Clinton's presidential administration and created tensions with Alex Penelas, Miami's wunderkind Cuban-American mayor and, at the time, a figure touted for national prominence.

It's a basic context that I've certainly heard before and one that prevents the eventual electoral showdown from feeling like an arbitrary incident, but I don't know that I've seen/heard it laid out as clearly and unimpeachably as Corben does here. With the help of local political and media figures, he connects a lot of dots, with many lines crossing through Penelas — utterly eviscerated here for over 100 minutes — and particularly through Armando Gutierrez, the local judicial kingmaker who also made himself indispensable as spokesman for Elian Gonzalez's Florida relatives.

The way it's presented here, Janet Reno and Bill Clinton probably cost Al Gore the Florida race long before more notorious figures like Katherine Harris ever became involved.

Corben's passion for the first chapter of this story — we're 42+ minutes into the doc before we get to election night — has the unavoidable impact of making the more familiar part of the story feel a little bloodless in comparison, like the foregone conclusion to the case he already made. By the time you get to Bush v. Gore, you can practically sense Corben thinking, "Come on, if you don't already know this, why are we even here?" At that point, Corben is already moving on to a damning, if not always completely persuasive, postscript speculating on an alt-history in which Florida went to Gore and every subsequent step of history shifted.

The second half of 537 Votes is hampered a bit by on-air talent that's decidedly thin, led by Mitchell Berger on the Democratic side and Brad Blakeman and Roger Stone on the Republican side. I know that there's an election coming up in which Florida is likely to play a major role once again, and I get that Al Gore and George W. Bush were never going to speak for a doc like this and that Katherine Harris has become a near-recluse and Warren Christopher passed away in 2011 and James Baker is 90. But if you judge documentaries like this on the basis of "Man, I can't believe they got ..." talking head stature, 537 Votes really suffers.

Heck, the documentary can't even reach a consensus on whether or not Stone was involved in the — to use the colorful Nixonian terminology — "ratfucking" in Florida. Blakeman says he wasn't even there. Stone mostly smiles demurely. Either way, there's something wonderfully and horribly freeing about the fact that 20 years later, nobody even bothers to pretend what happened in Florida reflected the will of the people in that election; the fair consensus is that the Republicans wanted to win and the Democrats wanted justice, and the more fools them. As Rick Sanchez, a Cuban-American Miami TV anchor aptly puts it, "While Democrats are sitting around trying to figure out how to do the right thing, Republicans are figuring out how to win."

Sanchez and a small group of local experts have to do a lot of heavy lifting throughout, since even in the first half of the documentary, nearly every key figure — from Penelas to Gutierrez to anybody with the last name "Gonzalez" — is absent.

Penelas probably stayed quiet because he was in the middle of an attempt to resurrect his political career when Corben was making the film. That didn't go so well for him. Or maybe Corben's preference was to do 537 Votes without the big names, focusing more on what it felt like to be in the middle of that cultural moment, letting local news coverage and, especially, late night comedy soundbites tell a lot of the story, frequently spiced up with cheeky late-'90s needle drops.

The difference, I guess, is ultimately between making a fun and persuasive argument, which 537 Votes does, and making a great and definitive documentary. Democratic Party operatives should definitely check this one out before November. Republicans probably don't need to. Roger Stone is still around.

Premieres Wednesday, Oct. 21, at 9 p.m. on HBO.