Did George W. Bush steal the 2000 presidential election? The answer almost certainly depends on your political orientation. But there's no question that someone does steal "Recount," the HBO film that looks back on those tense days when the country's future rested on the weight of a tiny scrap of paper called a chad. (The plural form of which is, as the film comically points out, chad.) The battle may have been between Al Gore and Bush and their armies of lawyers, but in cinematic terms, the person who walks off with the whole thing is Laura Dern, who plays Katherine Harris with abandon and vigor.
As Florida's secretary of State, Harris presided over the recount process, and the presidency was in the balance. Despite the allegations of voter disenfranchisement and all-around chicanery leveled against her, the criticism that stuck most was that of how she appeared—the twitchy stage presence, the pageant-queen hair and the makeup that looked as if she'd had it applied at Tammy Faye's House of Pancakes.
Dern's performance captures those quirks, but she gives Harris a surprising depth. Harris is played in the film not as an evil mastermind, but rather as a blindly loyal Dubya foot soldier who was as fierce as she was clueless. "She was portrayed in the media as the villain, but I don't think she was a villain, even though I believe she did things that were villainous," Dern says. "She's a complex person, and that complexity is what drew me in as an actor."
This is how "Recount" (debuting May 25) operates, taking the skeletal story everyone remembers and putting the flesh on its bones. The film is told largely through the eyes of the Gore team, but what can occasionally seem like bias has its roots in fact. (NEWSWEEK SENIOR Editor David A. Kaplan, the author of "The Accidental President," was one of several consultants on the movie.) The Democrats are the scrappy underdogs—after all, Gore was behind in the vote count in a state governed by his opponent's brother. The Republicans are pugilistic and cunning, but it's precisely that rock-'em-sock-'em attitude that allowed them to win the thing.
But smartly, the film allows us to think of its characters as individuals, not as members of monolithic factions. The debate the film is likely to reanimate—more than the obvious one—is whether its characters are treated fairly. Harris is a known quantity, but it's former secretary of State (and Gore adviser) Warren Christopher who will be left doing damage control. (The debate has already begun. See below for some of the real-life subjects who have already stepped up to defend him.) Christopher (John Hurt) is portrayed as a pacifistic milquetoast outmatched by his crafty, often charming opponent James Baker (a potent Tom Wilkinson). In his unwillingness to play hardball, Christopher comes off as just as responsible for the debacle as Harris or Baker—perhaps more so, because they were sabotaging the other guy, not their own.
Dern's zesty performance will either strike viewers as sexist (for focusing on Harris's clownish appearance and unsteady demeanor) or fair (not unlike the scrutiny that any public political figure can face when the stakes are high). It will be interesting to see if a scene in which Harris yells for an assistant to bring her "pink sugar"— a packet of Sweet'N Low—sends feminist message boards into overdrive, or whether the hostility toward Bush is so great that the filmmakers get a pass for caricaturing the woman who stopped the recount.
The issue of fairness was paramount to Dern. Harris wouldn't speak to her about the film (or to NEWSWEEK), so she prepared by reading Harris's book "Center of the Storm," studying press conferences and reading an interview conducted with Harris by screenwriter Danny Strong. She asked the film's director, Jay Roach, to let her have three takes of every scene—one over the top, one subtle, one in between—to give Roach options in the editing room. "[Harris] presented herself in this one way, but she couldn't have been that all of the time," she says. "I wanted to give him the choice to show different sides of her."
There are, of course, different sides to all the characters. "Recount" muddles the source of responsibility, taking a partisan conflict and showing how it was, in fact, a much more complex series of maneuvers and miscalculations on both sides. It won't make viewers want to stop pointing fingers; it will make them wish they had more of them to point.