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HBO's Recount expertly paints by the numbers

Laura Dern has the right makeup as flighty Katherine Harris.

Let's get this out of the way first. No actors named Chad were harmed -- or used -- in the making of HBO's dissection of Florida's 2000 presidential election.

Recount otherwise has a good number of "name" actors on-screen in this superb re-rendering of how Al Gore eventually "lost" the presidency to George W. Bush after more than a month of feverish maneuvering by both sides.

Laura Dern easily has the showiest turn as Katherine Harris, Florida's much-lampooned, easily manipulated secretary of state. But it's Britisher Tom Wilkinson who steals this two-hour movie, which premieres on Sunday, May 25th at 8 p.m. (central).

It's been a helluva spring on HBO for the two-time Oscar nominee. Wilkinson excelled as Benjamin Franklin in the network's recently concluded John Adams miniseries. And now he's a crackerjack presence as James Baker III, the Bush team's main man on the ground after Florida went up for grabs.

Baker immediately sees it as a "street fight for the presidency," and he won't be taking any prisoners. But this is a nuanced performance by Wilkinson, who also brings out the courtly Texan in Baker. Every on-screen second counts, whether he's chortling over the Gore camp's continued predicaments, enjoyably sparring with an adversary or quickly assessing Harris as a boob.

"This woman is hopeless," he tells an aide after watching one of her televised press conferences. "We're going to need some help on this."

Almost as much fun is Denis Leary as the Gore campaign's oft-profane national field director, Michael Whouley. His captain, Warren "Chris" Christopher (John Hurt), is much more a man of appeasement than action.

"The guy's so tight he probably eats his M&Ms with a knife and fork," Whouley deliciously tells Gore's former chief of staff, Ron Klain (Kevin Spacey).

Leary, Spacey and Wilkinson deftly drive the action in Recount.

Spacey is solid in the film's top-of-the-marquee role. But he's best with Leary at his side. They have one of their better scenes together while commiserating at a bar when all seems lost.

"You know what's funny about this?" Spacey's Klain says. "I'm not sure I even like Al Gore."

This cracks both of them up. But they plod on through this strange land of dimpled and hanging ballot chads punched feebly by many of Florida's elderly, some of whom don't see too well either.

Unfortunately, they're mostly Democrats, Leary's Whouley deadpans.

Director Jay Roach on the surface seems little-suited to this task. His feature film credits are mostly comedies, including all three Austin Powers movies, Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers.

Recount certainly has its darkly comic aspects, particularly when Dern's Katherine Harris holds forth.

"The eyes of the world have landed on me," Harris rhapsodizes, noting that just 10 years ago she was teaching "The Chicken Dance."

Still, the film is anything but a comic farce in its depictions of pivotal court decisions and stop-and-go ballot-counting. It hums along through all of this, detailing the issues involved without ever bogging down. That's no small feat.

Archival footage is used throughout, beginning with all those missteps by network TV anchors who first gave Florida to Gore and then took it back. Dan Rather's election night "Dan-isms" ride again, with the presidential race "cracklin' like a hickory fire" and Bush being "madder than a rained-on rooster."

A couple of guys named Brent Mendenhall and Grady Couch respectively play Bush and Gore. But they're barely seen on-camera, and never in full-frontal closeup. Gore is, however, heard over the phone far more often than Bush.

The real-life combatants are shown bringing an end to it all via excerpts from their addresses to the nation after the U.S. Supreme Court orders a halt to Florida's vote-counting with Bush still barely ahead.

"Ron, I can't win," the Gore mimic first tells Spacey's Klain over the phone. "Even if I win, I can't win."

Baker then tells his troops, "The system worked. There were no tanks in the streets."

Harris is last seen on a horse in a cowgirl outfit, happily waving to parade-goers. Her real-life counterpart likely will despise her depiction, but everyone else should be pretty much fine with theirs.

Recount resoundingly succeeds in its compelling retelling of a debacle that made Florida and its punch ballots a national punchline. The course of current events tells us that it made a great deal of difference who prevailed during what now seems like almost ancient history.

Grade: A