Just when you're filled to the popping point with Election 2008 comes this cunning drama about Election 2000, which defies odds by actually making you crave more politics. HBO's Recount, about the battle between Democrats and Republicans for Florida and thus, the presidency is paced like a thriller from its first minutes, when the strange news arrives that the Florida vote count is wrong, and a panicked aide finds himself at one end of a long tunnel, desperately trying to flag down Al Gore as he's about to walk on stage to give his concession speech. Ah, the tension, the danger! Director Jay Roach (the Austin Powers trilogy) has clearly seen a few conspiracy thrillers, and Dave Grusin's tenterhooked score sets the anxious pace as the film cuts between Democrat and Republican camps for the next 35 days as they parse ballots all the way to the Supreme Court. As Gore's former chief of staff, Ron Klain, Kevin Spacey loses the smug laziness that has enveloped him the past half decade and snaps to, pulling along the drama with a crisp efficiency and just the right amount of smirkiness: ''The plural of chad is chad?'' he marvels.
With an extremely clever script by debut screenwriter Danny Strong, Recount introduces a landslide of facts with sweaty grace, intertwining scripted scenes with actual broadcast-news clips. Anytime a moment feels overblown like the choreographed carnival of protesters outside the Florida Supreme Court recount proceeding up flashes some vintage CNN to remind us that the atmosphere actually was that insane. (Remember the ''Surrender Gorethy'' airplane banner?) The perfect mimicry of these public events makes you want to swallow even the most Hollywood-perfect bits of dialogue. Did a capitulating Gore really tell Klain ''Even if I win, I can't win''? Maybe, maybe not, but the line has a certain truthiness and particularly resonates in light of the internecine Clinton-Obama battle.
Speaking of Democrats, Recount may not be downright blue, but it's not as purply as it wants to appear. Despite its ''equal time'' approach, Recount is an underdog story, and thus a Democrat story. While George W. Bush, like Gore, is only vaguely glimpsed, the remaining Republican players here are coolly calculating Tom Wilkinson's James Baker III, the Bush team quarterback or they teeter on the edge of madness, like Laura Dern's Katherine Harris. With flaming lipstick and helmet hair, Dern nails the Florida secretary of state's looks, cadence, and carriage to a disturbing degree, and she runs with Harris' Cruella De Vil vibe: At one point, before a press conference, Dern morphs her face from that of a human being into Harris' crazy-cuckoo public mask, and the moment is absolutely chilling. Fair? Debatable, but like Recount, it's a gorgeous bit of political theater. A-