Hollywood is messing with our national past again, and this time, the potential for confusion, cynicism and paranoia about our politics and shared sense of history seems greater than ever.
Next Sunday, HBO will premiere Recount, a docudrama starring Kevin Spacey and Tom Wilkinson that purports to tell the "story behind the headlines" of the contested 2000 presidential election in Florida. Of course, the real-life wounds from that bare-knuckled political battle between the operatives of Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic candidate, and Republican George W. Bush, have not yet healed. Millions of Americans still believe that the presidency was stolen from Gore by GOP partisans in the Florida state government who rigged the count -- and then, the recount.
Remember hanging chads, butterfly ballots and "purging" the voter rolls?
Adding more zeitgeist grist to the milieu in which Recount will make its debut on May 25th is the very real decision that current Democratic Party officials must make in the coming weeks. They must decide whether or not to count -- and if they do count, how to apportion -- votes and delegates from the primaries held earlier this year in Michigan and Florida. Again a drama, albeit a lesser one in its potential effect on the American presidency, will in all likelihood be played out behind closed doors in the Sunshine State -- with talk of disenfranchisement and conspiracy sure to follow.
No genre of television programming so exploits such jangled corners of the national psyche as docudrama -- an often irresponsible mix of fact and fiction so mucked up that you can't tell where one ends and the other begins.
One of the more reckless examples involves the 2003 CBS film The Reagans, a look at the 1980s presidency of Ronald Reagan. A controversial scene in that production showed the Republican leader cruelly dismissing the suffering of AIDS victims and calls for medical funding by saying, "He who lives in sin shall die in sin."
When the producers admitted that the words and the scene were invented, CBS chairman Leslie Moonves ordered them deleted. Moonves wound up pulling the entire docudrama from the network's lineup -- showing it instead on cable channel Showtime, a Viacom sister operation that, at the time, was seen in only about 15 million homes (versus 108 million for CBS).
Comparing The Reagans to Oliver Stone's 1991 film JFK, which falsely characterized Lyndon Johnson as a conspirator in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the CBS executive said films that depict historical figures and use documentary images have an obligation to adhere to a fact-based sense of verifiable truth.
Moonves, a flamboyant Hollywood showman, might not be the best guide on matters of media ethics, but even by his simple standard, HBO's Recount fails. Invented dialogue and actions attributed to real-world figures play side by side with, and are indistinguishable from, verifiable actions and events that took place in Florida in 2000.
The film centers on James Baker III (Wilkinson), who led the Bush team during the recount, and Ron Klain (Spacey) who took control of Gore's team after former Secretary of State Warren Christopher (John Hurt) bowed out in the early going of the epic 36-day struggle. As one might guess from the resumes of that trio, the acting is superb.
And it doesn't stop there. Laura Dern is an over-the-top delight as Katherine Harris, the controversial Florida secretary of state who became a household name during non-stop cable coverage of the recount. Denis Leary is at his profane and provocative best as Michael Whouley, a Gore strategist.
But that's entertainment -- the drama part.
The "docu" aspects of the film are another matter. Central to the historical interpretation of events offered by first-time screenwriter Danny Strong is the depiction of Baker as a back-street brawler and Christopher as a wimp (there is no other word for it). Christopher's reluctance to slug it out in the trenches is given as a key reason for Gore's defeat.
Christopher, Baker and other real-life players have challenged those core characterizations, with the former secretary of state calling "much of what" Strong wrote about him "pure fiction" in a New York Times interview last week.
Strong, a 33-year-old former actor on Gilmore Girls and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, has meanwhile acknowledged in an interview at Politico.com that he invented dialogue and scenes. One example near the end of the film finds Klain saying, "I'm not even sure I like Al Gore."
It makes for a fine ironic moment, coming as it does from Gore's chief strategist. The only problem: He never said the words; Strong simply made them up.
Analysts say that we are already history-impaired enough as a culture without TV, society's dominant storyteller, spinning such false tales about who we were and are. Democracy relies on citizens having access to verified information about their lives, while such docudramas as Recount often provide the opposite -- innuendo, rumor and outright fabrications that add to a sense of confusion and mistrust about American history and national identity.
"The fact is that a lot of people will watch this HBO movie and assume it is not a docudrama, but a documentary, " says Philip Seib, a media historian and professor of journalism at the University of Southern California. "A lot of viewers will assume that the filmmakers have stayed within the historical record, when in fact they haven't -- and that's a problem."
Mark Feldstein, associate professor and director of the Journalism Oral History Project at George Washington University, says that, while he has come to accept certain techniques of the genre, he remains "troubled" by Hollywood producers and writers thinking it acceptable to invent words and put them in the mouths of historical figures.
"It's one thing to invent dialogue out of whole cloth for a fictional character, but it's another thing to do with a historical figure where there is a written record of what Warren Christopher or Ronald Reagan said that can be consulted," says the two-time Peabody Award winner and former investigative reporter for ABC and NBC News. "It amazes me how Hollywood will spend millions of dollars on expensive production effects and then blow it when it comes to just simply being accurate about something as important as our national past."
>>>ON TV Recount makes its debut at 9 p.m. next Sunday on HBO.