Only HBO had the courage to give us the behind-the-scenes truth about the two greatest contests affecting our civilization in recent memory: the battle to decide the election between George Bush and Al Gore and, perhaps more importantly, the NBC decision about whether Jay Leno or David Letterman would get to host the Tonight Show and, thus, change life as we know it. The question is: if you’re just watching
these films as films and not metaphors or cautionary tales, which
one’s the best investment of a couple of hours?
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The PR buzz for “Recount” is only just now building on the sides of buses, premiere parties, ET mentions and in interstitial spots on HBO itself. “Recount” came into my life last month, as a TV academy member, in the form of a “For Your Consideration” DVD. I’ve already written about this millenial political period on the “Instant History” site and remember, vividly, how transfixed we all were for that month of misery in 2000. Now, of course, we have the Clinton/Obama tie to bring us together on cable news channels and we may start to forget how many twists and turns there were in the Florida recount. HBO turned director Jay Roach (“Meet the Parents”) loose on the project after Sidney Pollack turned them down, and Roach has done a fine job here making us re-live the headlines. I remember most vividly that the entire campaign was a debate about what to do with a budget surplus that disappeared after 9/11 never to be seen again and that both Gore and Bush were universally loathed by the electorate, accounting for their dead heat as much as the blue state-red state divide.
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The Defending Champion
Back in the day, Johnny Carson ruled late night until he decided to quit in 1992, and then all hell broke loose as NBC managed to publicly court and humiliate the two princes who would be king: David Letterman and Jay Leno. The smoke eventually cleared in Leno’s favor but the story behind the story became a book by Bill Carter that skewered all the characters involved for being true-to-life Hollywood sharks. As directed by Betty Thomas (“The Brady Bunch Movie”), this film stirred up all kinds of “inside baseball” controversy for HBO — from its portrayals of Leno (Daniel Roebuck) and Letterman (John Michael Higgins) themselves to Leno’s insane manager Helen Kushnick (Kathy Bates) and Letterman’s insane agent (Michael Ovitz). This movie amused me a lot because I actually knew some of the players — I’d been at Ovitz’s agency CAA for a few years earlier in my career, I did a TV series with NBC’s Warren Littlefield (Bob Balaban), and my son, Jonathan, had actually been a child actor portraying young Jay Leno on the Tonight Show for eight or nine appearances.
Political junkies will love “Recount” in the same way that TV junkies loved “The Late Shift.” They are insider pieces with real people being portrayed by some familiar actors. Tom Wilkinson, for example, does a killer James Baker and Laura Dern turns in a loopy Katerine Harris in “Recount.” Bob Balaban’s in both films, but he was best in “The Late Shift.”
The thing is, we already know how both films turn out. We know that Bush wins in the Supreme Court and goes on to invade Iraq while Gore grows a beard and re-discovers global warming. We also know that Leno gets the NBC gig while Letterman goes to CBS but gets the last laugh because he gets to watch from the sidelines as NBC does it again and publicly elbows Leno out for Conan O’Brien. In any case, though, since we know the endings, our enjoyment has to be all about the ride.
The ride feels less bumpy in “Recount” because the material is more important and is not 100% dependent on that HBO ironic tone in order to succeed. Sometimes it can just settle for telling its story. But the subject matter in “The Late Shift” seems smaller and therefore less compelling. This means it better be funny. It is, but only in fits and starts.
Funny, of course, is in the Eye of the Beholder and if you think you’d like to see Roeback in a latext chin playing Leno or Higgins with a gap-toothed denture playing Letterman, then you’re in for a treat. If not, you will spend the film eyeing them the same way you look at formerly hot women with too much plastic surgery. They look mostly right, but something is at least a frame off. To the best of my knowledge, none of the actors in “Recount” are prosthetically enhanced.
“The Late Shift” actually has a few scenes with Dave and Jay together which should have been great, but fall flat. “Recount,” on the other hand, has Denis Leary and I’m one of those viewers who can’t get enough of this guy’s peformances. He and Kevin Spacey share a lot of scenes together, but this is not Spacey’s strongest performance. It feels like he method-actored his way into a study of the real guy he’s portraying who must be very low-energy but the performance is a mistake.
Another oddball comparison here is that most viewers will watch these films thinking that the wrong guy won. By now, Gore’s star has long-eclipsed Bush’s with all but the most partisan crowds. At the same time, Johnny Carson always said he’d have picked Letterman if given the chance and it was Letterman’s boyhood dream to host “The Tonight Show.”
Imagine an America where President Gore fought global warming instead of Iraqi insurgents and “The Tonight Show with David Letterman” ruled the late shift. Dream on…
If you have HBO, you’ll probably end up watching “Recount” whether you want to or not because it will be ubiquitous. Even if you don’t have HBO, you’ll probably still want to rent it when they release it because of the timing in our political calendar. It’s a good strong story that, given the state of politics these days, plays as tragedy more often than not. But the fact that Leno’s being ousted for O’Brien doesn’t really make “The Late Shift” must-see TV any more now than it did then. If you want to be truly entertained by pulling back the curtain to see how messy it can get back there, then you have to demand a “Recount.”