“Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year’s Presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law.” These are the words of Supreme Court Justice David Souter in his dissent to the Court’s per curiam opinion on Bush v. Gore (2000). “Recount,” a film starring Kevin Spacey (“American Beauty”) as Gore attorney Ron Klain, Bob Balaban (“Moonrise Kingdom”) as Bush attorney Ben Ginsburg and Laura Dern (“Marriage Story”) as Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris.
“Recount” offers an account of the legal hurricane that struck Florida’s Atlantic Coast in November and December of 2000 and what some might call a stolen presidency. As the American people prepare for election night 2020, this 2008 retelling of a 2000 story should serve as a reminder that the electoral process is far from straightforward. The U.S. Supreme Court, including neophyte Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett (who, along with Justice Kavanaugh, worked on Bush v. Gore), is already hearing cases related to the 2020 election, and “Recount” projects cold realism apropos of Tuesday’s vote counts, whispering to Sinclair Lewis: “It can happen here.”
The story begins on Election Day 2000, with a premonitory phone call from Palm Beach County. The ballots are confusing, and many voters worry that they accidentally voted for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan instead of Al Gore. This particular issue was one of many revealed in the coming days and weeks, but the “butterfly ballot” was the first hint that Florida would be the scene of an unprecedented legal battle. Late Tuesday night, moments before Gore walks on stage to give a concession speech, the numbers in Florida tighten. As recalculations and system errors manifest, Bush’s margin of victory shrinks to a size at which Florida law calls for a machine recount. The rest is history.
Admittedly, the straight-to-HBO film’s script is fairly uninspired. Laura Dern’s brilliantly unlikeable Harris is an exception to otherwise forgettable acting. There’s a touch of docu-drama in the cinematography, though the film overwhelmingly feels like a true-story episode of “The West Wing,” where Spacey’s Klain resembles Bradley Whitford’s (“Get Out”) Josh Lyman. All told, this is a film for those interested in constitutional law and the American electoral process. Those in search of a riveting Bush political drama would be better off with “Vice.”
That said, the rhetoric of Sam Rockwell’s (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”) Bush is less salient than that of the real G.W., clips of whom are studded throughout “Recount.” In Bush’s December acceptance speech, he speaks of his policy goals and remarks that “These priorities are not merely Republican concerns or Democratic concerns. They are American responsibilities.” In this hyperpolarized 2020 election, let us hope that, electoral contest aside, we emerge in January of 2021 with a president who shares this idea.
Politically, what does “Recount” mean for 2020? I recommend anyone interested in learning more about Bush v. Gore listen to a few podcasts. Start with episode 46 of What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law, hosted by Roman Mars, and then move onto the Oct. 27, 2020 episode of The Daily by The New York Times. These podcasts do a much better job than I could at explaining the situation in 2000, and approach the story from different angles. However, I will do my best to mention a few key points.
3 U.S. Code § 7 and 15 say that States must settle any disputes over the appointment of its electors (i.e. clear up any issues in a state’s vote count) by six days prior to the meeting of those electors to cast their votes for president. In 2020, this “safe harbor” deadline is Dec. 8. In 2000, the safe harbor deadline was Dec. 12, the same day on which the U.S. Supreme Court delivered its opinion in Bush v. Gore, ending the recount in Florida.
If “Recount” plays itself out in 2020, keep your eye on Dec. 8. Let’s hope that in the movie made about the 2020 election, Laura Dern’s character will be principled and dedicated to a non-partisan electoral process.
Daily Arts Writer Ross London can be reached at email@example.com.