During a presidential campaign as tumultuous as the Watergate era, HBO has given us "Recount," the best political film since "All the President's Men." As a vigorous retelling of the political storm around the 2000 Florida presidential election, "Recount" first aired May 25 on HBO and will be cablecast again throughout October, just in time for the November elections.
Although pre-publicity tended to imply that "Recount" centered on the travails of Florida's Secretary of State Katherine Harris (played by Laura Dern), it actually focuses on the efforts of Ron Klain (Kevin Spacey). Klain, who despite being recently demoted from Al Gore's chief of staff to a senior campaign liaison position, staunchly defends the vice president's efforts to recheck the count of ballots in favorable Florida counties in an attempt to snatch Democratic victory from the hanging chad of destiny. ("Chad," by the way, is a word used identically in singular as in plural, as Michael Whouley, Democratic Party political consultant, insists).
Director Jay Roach (L) and actor Kevin Spacey on the set of "Recount." ©Gene Page Fortunately, although during the Sept. 21 Primetime Emmy telecast on ABC "Recount" won Emmy awards for "Outstanding Made For Television Movie" and "Outstanding Directing For A Miniseries, Movie Or A Dramatic Special" for its director, Jay Roach, on the previous weekend its editor, Alan Baumgarten, was also awarded a statuette for "Outstanding Single-Camera Picture Editing For A Miniseries Or A Movie" at the Creative Arts Primetime Emmys ceremony, which later aired on E!.
A veteran editor with feature film credits dating back to 1992's "Lawnmower Man," and including "Meet the Fockers" (2004) and "Charlie Bartlett" (2007), Baumgarten not only had a highly literate script by Danny Strong to work with along with original music from Dave Grusin, but "Recount" also benefited from a stellar cast that included Denis Leary as Gore's chief field operative, Michael Whouley, Tom Wilkinson as chief Republican adviser James Baker and John Hurt, who was as much born to play Warren Christopher as Shelly Duvall once channeled Olive Oyl. In fact, director Roach decided to run images of the real politicians portrayed in "Recount" over the end credits to emphasize the striking similarity with the actors who portrayed them.
A VORACIOUS SCRIPT
It was the voracity of the script that attracted Baumgarten to edit "Recount," especially since it gave him several opportunities to craft visual montages cut to Dave Grusin music.
"Any of Dave's cues lend the film their emotional weight," Baumgarten said, "and yet the movement within his melodies is perfectly paced for a montage of images."
Baumgarten began editing "Recount" in July 2007 on a Meridian-based Avid Media Composer near location shooting in Jacksonville, Fla., because the post team also needed to provide extensive video material to fill the on-set TV monitors from which the characters often get their news. He credits his assistants, Paul Murphy and Christine Kim, for helping wrangle the more than 150 hours of footage shot by DP Jim Denault and prepare some for practical playback on the set to blend clips of real news anchors with the actors. "Recount" incorporates so much actual news footage in its sequences that the difference is indiscernible to the audience.
It was a complicated shoot, with more than 100 speaking parts and many locations throughout Florida, so Baumgarten usually conferred with Roach on weekends as the cut progressed.
"We'd look at the footage together, he'd give me some notes, and then he let me run with it," Baumgarten said. "Because of production requirements, the film was shot all out of order but the tremendous amount of footage gave me plenty of editorial opportunities."
There are, as you would imagine, several sequences of earnest, if slightly befuddled, citizens counting ballots to check for hanging, dimpled or dotted chad. But Baumgarten feels his editorial contribution can especially be seen around 10 minutes into the film where a series of network anchors announce first that Gore had won Florida, and then have to come back on air switching their predictions to George W. Bush.
"There is a rhythm in these few minutes that builds as the reality of the situation is revealed," Baumgarten said. "The sequence was scripted, but we kept adding more soundbites from the anchors in three or four different versions until we cracked it. As a director, Jay has a great focus, patience and energy and re-editing was as important to us as editing."
Even in as intensely political a film as "Recount," opportunities for humor often presented themselves. For example, at about 44 minutes into the film, Florida's director of elections, L. Clayton Roberts, is on the phone advising Judge Charles Burton, chairman of the Palm Beach County Canvassing Board, that since no vote tabulation error had occurred, a hand recount was not authorized. During this admonition, Baumgarten cut in a sequence of shots showing ballots cascading through counting machines with chad popcorning out like mini sparklers.
"We felt it was an acceptably subtle way to point out the irregularities without being too partisan," Baumgarten said.
There is also one crucial cut that doesn't happen. At 48 minutes, Whouley approaches Klain holding a file box saying, "It's an early Hanukah gift." But the film doesn't cut to the folder Whouley is holding. Instead, in the next scene we see Klain in front on his task force pulling a memo out of the box announcing triumphantly that it's from George W. himself stating that in Texas a hand recount will be conducted in preference to a machine recount, and that dimpled chad should be included in the tally. "The script left it open," Baumgarten said. "The trick for us was to determine the best moment to leave the 'gift' hanging, and pick it up in the next scene."
One particularly challenging scene was the "Brooks Brothers riot" that erupts when protesters clamor to stop the recount.
Baumgarten was helped by additional editor Joel Goodman on this sequence where they intercut real news footage with the material shot on set. As Baumgarten said, "We wanted to plant the seed that there was a lot of truth in the film about what was actually happening."
Based on his significant career, Baumgarten has gained perspective on the sophistication of today's editing.
"An editor's challenge is to find a way to cut a sequence successfully even if matching action or maintaining continuity have to be sacrificed," Baumgarten said. "The most important thing is to keep the pace and emotion of a scene correct, choosing the best performances and using them to build the strongest sequence possible."