BOOKS AND ARTS MAY 23, 2008
Recount, a dramatized take on the controversial denouement of the 2000 election, premieres on HBO Sunday at 8 p.m. TNR’s Jonathan Chait, who covered the Florida battle eight years ago and is still seething about it, discusses the film with its director, Jay Roach (of Austin Powers and Meet the Parents fame).
Chait begins the conversation below. Click here for Roach’s response.
It's a triumph. Congratulations. Watching Recount was one of the most powerful film-viewing experiences I can ever remember. Of course, I’m biased, because I’m one of the people who never let go of the events it depicts. Inevitably, I was going to be either furious or gratified with whoever made the first movie about it. I was gratified.
The Florida recount was one of the most important political episodes in American history. Let me try to make my historical argument as quickly and un-boringly as I can. American politics used to have an establishment, filled with elites who believed in bipartisanship and consensus, and who held together the center in American politics. Conservatives spent decades discrediting and circumventing that establishment. But the establishment remained in place, and it could bring to heel even so popular a figure as Ronald Reagan. The recount was the moment when the Republican Party fully realized that, beneath the still-imposing edifice, the old institutions had rotted away and could be brought down with a few swift blows.
Yet the Democrats still believed in the power of the establishment and its ideals. This is a major theme of Recount. Al Gore and his lieutenants agonized about their reputation, their duty, and winning the approval of The New York Times, while Republicans saw the episode as a pure street fight. The Republicans were teeming with rage and paranoia, well-captured in the movie by the “Brooks Brothers Riot” and the bitter commentaries of GOP recount lawyer Ben Ginsburg. This was the political culture of the moment. Liberal editorial pages studiously urged both sides to fight fair, while conservative organs like the Wall Street Journal and the Weekly Standard printed deranged conspiracy theories and urged Bush to do whatever it took to win.
After the recount ended, there was intense pressure to look away from what had happened, a pressure that grew after September 11. And so this unbelievably consequential event virtually disappeared from the public discourse. I suspect that the cratering of the Bush presidency is what allowed this movie to be made. Bush’s failure as a president is an irony that hangs over the whole film, giving even mundane events black humor.
The humorous tone of the movie is one of the most interesting choices, and I’d love to hear your take on it. The events it depicts--while presented straightforwardly and non-propagandistically--are a bloody outrage, and yet the tone and feel of the film is extremely light. I love the end result--hypocrisy, irrationality, and moral callousness are often best captured by humor. But I’m curious what drove this not-obvious decision--is the episode still so touchy that HBO decided it had to be approached in a funny way to make it palatable? In any case, I think it actually drives home the outrage more effectively than it would if it was an earnest, Bill Moyers-style “Shame of the Blah Blah Blah” documentary.
If I haven’t given you enough to chew on, let me toss out some more questions: How is it that a comedic director took on this project? Was there a calculation that the subject was still too delicate to approach with a heavy touch? In any case, it’s an utterly devastating indictment of Katherine Harris, the Bush recount team, and the Supreme Court--but all the more persuasive because it is presented as a series of wry observations.
(Speaking of Katherine Harris, Laura Dern’s impression is fantastic. There was one scene where she walked to the podium and I thought I was looking at footage of Harris. There must be something distinctive about the way Harris carries herself that Dern was able to capture, because the similarity was spooky.)
What made you decide to take on this project? What research did you conduct? What was the reaction at HBO? What reaction have you gotten from Republicans?
Also, I suppose that for the sake of the appearance of balance, I should make one criticism of the movie, so here goes. How did you not include the scene where John Bolton burst into a Tallahassee library and announced, "I’m with the Bush-Cheney team, and I'm here to stop the count!”? That always struck me as the most cinematic moment of the whole episode.
Jonathan Chait is a senior editor of The New Republic. Jay Roach is a director and producer whose films include Recount, the Austin Powers series and Meet the Parents.
By Jonathan Chait, Jay Roach, and Danny Strong