Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The New York Times

May 14, 2008

HBO Film About 2000 Recount Draws Protests From Democrats

Wounds from the Florida recount, still healing for many Democrats, are being ripped open again for some prominent former advisers to Al Gore. They say that a coming HBO film dramatizing the ballot battle after the 2000 election unfairly blames them for the Democrats’ failure to secure the White House.

Warren Christopher, the former secretary of state who served as the public face of the Gore team in the early days of the recount effort, said this week that he believed the film, “Recount,” was “pure fiction” in its portrayal of him as a weak strategist unprepared to stand up to the aggressive tactics of James A. Baker III, the former secretary of state who was the chief Republican adviser.

William M. Daley, Mr. Gore’s campaign chairman, who helped to lead the Democratic recount team in Florida, said the film created misperceptions about the Gore team’s decision-making process. Mr. Gore, who oversaw the team from Washington, is largely absent from the film.

Even Mr. Baker questioned the portrayal of Mr. Christopher. “I don’t think I was as ruthless as the movie portrays me, and I know he was not as wimpish as it makes him appear,” Mr. Baker said.

The film, which has its premiere on May 25 on HBO, stars John Hurt as Mr. Christopher, Tom Wilkinson as Mr. Baker, Mitch Pileggi as Mr. Daley and Laura Dern as Katherine Harris, then the Florida secretary of state. Kevin Spacey plays Ron Klain, the Gore lawyer who led the on-the-ground recount effort and through whose eyes much of the action is seen.

As many dramatizations do, “Recount” includes invented scenes and dialogue. Danny Strong, who wrote the screenplay, said in an interview that while those inventions condensed events, they reflect what actually happened. “The film tries to give the essence of the truth,” he said, and is based on his own research and interviews, as well as on books and newspaper and magazine articles documenting the recount effort.

Dramatizations of historical events, particularly political ones, have frequently given trouble to writers and producers trying to create compelling entertainment. In 2006 ABC made changes to “The Path to 9/11” after complaints from former Clinton administration officials that it portrayed them as less than vigilant in their pursuit of Osama bin Laden. CBS dropped plans to show “The Reagans,” a 2003 mini-series, after Republican and conservative groups protested its portrayal of President Reagan as forgetful and unsympathetic to AIDS victims. (The series was broadcast on Showtime.)

“Recount,” which has been screened for invited audiences in Washington and New York and will be shown in Florida this week, is inspiring similar protests.

“I think a lot of the strategizing in the script that I saw was somebody’s hindsight rather than what we had to deal with in the immediate aftermath of the election,” Mr. Daley said. He added: “The perception that Warren Christopher was some wuss who got hoodwinked by Jim Baker is absolute fantasy in the mind of somebody who is trying to make themselves out to be bigger than they were.”

Neither Mr. Christopher nor Mr. Daley has seen the completed film, which has been sent to television reporters and critics for review. Mr. Daley said he requested and was given a draft of the script last year by HBO after filming had begun. Mr. Baker, who has seen the film, said he reviewed a draft of the script before production began and requested changes that were incorporated into the film.

Mr. Christopher said he learned of the film from his tailor, who was asked by the filmmakers to reproduce one of Mr. Christopher’s suits. He said he offered to review the script but never received one. The New York Times gave him a transcript of the scenes in which his character appears.

“I was stunned by the excerpt,” he said in an interview. “Much of what the author has written about me is pure fiction. It contained events that never occurred, words I never spoke and decisions attributed to me that I never made.”

The film portrays Mr. Christopher as blocking attempts by other Gore advisers to rally protesters and to take the fight over disputed ballots to court. He is depicted as backing away from confrontation during a meeting with Mr. Baker, seeking compromise and negotiation as the Republicans prepare for war.

The portrait stands in stark contrast to Mr. Baker’s. This is largely because the film is edited to jump directly from scenes in which Mr. Baker prepares the Bush team for “a street fight,” giving directions about where to stage protests, to scenes where Mr. Christopher counsels caution and calls for an “orderly process” without protesters.

That characterization of Mr. Christopher has some support. Accounts published in The New York Times in 2000 characterized Mr. Christopher as urging caution and a disciplined approach to the recount.

Early reviews of “Recount” have been positive. Writing on, Jeffrey Wells calls it “a thoroughly engaging, first-rate political drama.” But, he added, “I can’t see how this film won’t be seen as having done serious damage to the reputation” of Mr. Christopher, whom Mr. Wells says is portrayed “as one of the great all-time wimps.”

Mr. Strong disputes that characterization. “It was our goal to show him as a noble statesman who held a deep concern at how the rest of the world would be negatively affected if the United States was not able to handle a disputed election in a nonviolent manner,” he said.

The film is Mr. Strong’s first produced screenplay. Also an actor who appeared for four seasons on “Gilmore Girls,” Mr. Strong said he focused his book research on four works by reporters who covered the 36 days between the election and the Supreme Court decision that ended the recount.

Mr. Strong gave several people depicted in the film the opportunity to review the script before filming began. Among them, he said, was Mr. Klain, who oversaw much of the day-to-day activity in Florida after Mr. Christopher returned to California for a family matter.

Mr. Klain said the film “gets the big things right,” but faults its portrait of Mr. Christopher. “He was as intense and vigorous an advocate for Vice President Gore as anyone there,” Mr. Klain said.

Tom Wilkinson, left, as James A. Baker III, and Bob Balaban as Ben Ginsberg in a scene from the HBO film “Recount.”

Mr. Christopher and Mr. Daley were interviewed by the film’s creators only after filming began. Mr. Christopher said he was told that scenes involving his character had already been filmed; Mr. Strong denied that, saying the scenes were to be filmed that day.

Mr. Strong confirmed that Mr. Christopher offered to review the script but, he said, he decided not to send one. “I didn’t feel comfortable sending it to him because I didn’t feel that he was being totally candid in our interview,” Mr. Strong said. “He wasn’t as forthright with me as other people I’ve interviewed.”

Mr. Strong also said that the film did not intend to pin the blame for the Democrats’ defeat on anyone. In a later interview, though, he said Mr. Christopher and Mr. Daley “wanted to concede from Day One.” He said that conclusion was supported by one of his primary sources, “Too Close to Call,” a book by Jeffrey Toobin, who served as a consultant on the film. In it Mr. Toobin argues that by the end of the first week, both Mr. Daley and Mr. Christopher were “making the case for surrender.”