The major achievement of Jay Roach’s HBO film about the down-to-the-wire US election of 2000 is that, as in a Shakespearean tragedy you’ve seen in dozens of productions, you can’t help hoping that the ending won’t be the one you remember from history. Many of the cast are high-profile entertainment industry liberals and the story can’t help but be inherently slanted towards the Democratic position, but Danny Strong’s script goes out of its way simply to present facts and takes shows as many idealists and pragmatists in the Republican camp as the Democrat bunker, from Ben Ginsberg (Bob Balaban), whose disgust with Clinton is palpable, to James Baker (Tom Wilkinson), a former Democrat with personal loyalties to Bush Sr. The election is initially too close to call, with Gore winning the popular vote but a typical quirk of democracy forcing the decision of who becomes the next President to an electoral college whose composition is decided on a state by state basis. Unfortunately for all concerned, the crucial vote hangs on which party takes Florida, where Bush’s brother Jeb is Governor and Secretary of State Katherine Harris (Laura Dern) finds that the White House is almost within her gift as it falls to her to rule on the terms and validity of a recount.
As controversy drags on, the parties field high-powered legal and lobbying teams in Florida while candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore (barely seen) maintain an apparent distance from the ‘street-fight for the presidency of the United States’. The viewpoint character is mostly Ron Klain (Kevin Spacey), a Gore aide slightly on the outs with the candidate (‘I’m not sure I even like Al Gore’) who has to ramrod the lobbying team when Democratic higher-ups withdraw, aided mostly by liberal lawyer David Boies (Ed Begley Jr) and rare Democrat political scrapper Michael Whouley (Denis Leary). Though Ginsberg is genuinely indignant about the Democrats’ attempts to steal an election, most of the dirty tricks – including delaying tactics on the part of the vote-checkers trying to get the recount timed out, aggressive crowd-for-hire protesters and scurrilous news-spinning – come from the GOP. If there’s a subtle bias in the docudrama, it’s against the locals – there’s always an exasperation from both sides at Floridan ineptitudes which have created this farce, including barely-working vote machines, a shakily geriatric electorate too feeble to punch a card properly and pre-election shenanigans which disenfranchise a great number of people.
As in the news stories of the time, Harris comes to prominence and Dern has the most nuanced role in the film as the mock-daffy, conniving but genuinely terrified fixer at the centre of the shitstorm. Of course, the whole thing is now informed by our sense of the Bush Presidency – an airport exchange between Klain and Baker about hoping the best man won and a smug bit of double-edged congratulation that regime change was effected in America without ‘tanks on the streets’ are shadowed by policies Bush would espouse. The question that can’t be answered is what difference a Gore victory would have made, on the assumption that the decisions which would really shape the first decade of the 21st Century weren’t being made in public in Florida but in secret in the lairs of Osama bin Laden.