Who is Theresa LePore? There is a new horror movie/comedy playing on HBO starting May 25, and when LePore’s name is mentioned memories start to blast their way back. You may have had 45 conversations about LePore before utterly forgetting her. She belongs to the ancient history of November 2000.
The HBO movie is Recount, and it’s a snappy all-star treatment (Ed Begley is particularly amusing as the clownish but redoubtable appellate lawyer David Boies) of an episode that, for different reasons, partisans from both sides would rather forget.
The movie, in which Gore and Bush are entirely offscreen except for brief glimpses in which actors play them in profile (occasionally you hear their voices on conference calls) makes more of an effort than you’d think to be even-handed; the Republicans, as personified by Tom Wilkinson as James Baker and Bob Balaban as Ben Ginsberg, are portrayed not so much as evil conspirators but as canny operatives, which is probably the best the GOP can hope for in a mainstream Hollywood production.
The Democrats, led by Kevin Spacey as former Gore chief of staff Ron Klain and Denis Leary as field organizer Michael Whouley, are (of course) portrayed in an entirely positive light. They are reluctant to engage in a legal fight because they have the country’s best interests at heart. They want the law to prevail. Most of all, they want every vote to be counted, or at least (given their objection to a cache of overseas military ballots lacking postmarks) every legal vote. Or at least every sort-of-legal vote, according to whatever manufactured-on-the-spot standard (the movie twice mentions that a policy that would have been useful to Democrats in Florida had been signed into law in Texas by then-Gov. Bush, as though another state’s policies had any legal standing whatsoever), in the four most liberal counties in the state, which were the only ones where Team Gore asked for manual recounts. Only Warren Christopher (John Hurt) is less than a hero, but like the job applicant who tells his interviewer his biggest fault is that sometimes he just cares too gosh-darn much about his work, “Chris” is shown strictly as a man too noble of soul and pure of heart to stand up to the mudslinging of the Republican side. “This is a street fight for the presidency!” Baker barks. Cut to Christopher saying: “This is a proper, legal process, not a street fight.” That’s rich, coming from the party of Bill Daley. (Democrats involved have been complaining that this portrayal of Christopher is pure fiction.)
The movie hurries past the fact that Gore, far from being dragged into the mess, shopped around for any old basis for litigation after first raising a stink on the theory that there should be a revote for anyone who thought the “butterfly ballot” was confusing, changing tactics when the ballot turned out to be perfectly legal and approved by the Democratic Palm Beach County election supervisor Theresa LePore.
Republicans are allowed to score some points, though. Baker warns early in the film that the entire Florida Supreme Court consisted of liberals, which would indeed result in a bizarre series of make-it-up-as-you-go-along rulings that ignored the law. While the Supreme Court’s ultimate 5-4 ruling in Bush’s favor is the only judicial decision liberals ever cite in the case, Recount takes the trouble to point out that it was only because of a 4-3 decision—among seven Democrats!—on Florida’s high court that the case even got to the Supremes. The chief judge in Florida, Charles Wells, delivered a memorable dissent shown in Recount, which is also careful to point out that the Supreme Court ruled 7-2, not 5-4, that Florida had erred. Late in the movie, the barking Baker delivers a speech about his loyalty to Bush 41 that humanizes him.
But the movie will leave little doubt in viewers’ minds as to who the villains were. As if poor Katherine Harris hasn’t been shredded enough—my Goodness, how dare she wear heavy makeup for a TV appearance?—she is here portrayed by Laura Dern as a drifting, wafting hack borne along on clouds of vanity (“The eyes of the world have landed on me!”), or maybe just a dummy for sinister Republican ventriloquists. During an important meeting, she idiotically blurts out, “Pink sugar!” When she finally certifies the election result, dreamy/demented la-la-la-la music plays on the soundtrack.
The Republicans’ effort to be careful about which ballots were legally acceptable is shown as a cynical effort to run out the clock while they were on top, but given that it took various news organizations months to perform manual recounts, the most surprising element of Recount is that it doesn’t even mention history’s epilogue: that several journalistic consortia would go on to conclude that Bush was the likely winner after all.