There's little doubt that former Secretary of State James Baker likes HBO's movie "Recount," its upcoming chronicle of the fabled 2000 post-election day Florida fiasco. He calls it "a very entertaining film to watch," and he's even hosting a screening of the pic at his public policy institute in Houston.
But, with a mixture of amusement and polite contention, he does challenge some of its portrayals. Like his own.
"They made me out to be a little more like Don Corleone than I really am," Baker tells Variety, a bit wryly.
He praises Tom Wilkinson, who with slicked back hair and heavy makeup comes across as an an aggressive, hard-charging James Baker, ready to win as if it were a street fight.
Yet Baker's original counterpart in the recount, former Secretary of State Warren Christopher (played by John Hurt), representing the Gore team, is portrayed as too slow to maneuver, overly worried that the post-election dispute would be orderly, and willing to reach some kind of compromise in the first week after the election.
"I don't think I am as ruthless as the movie portrays me, or that Warren Christopher is as wimpish as he is portrayed to be," Baker says.
Christopher is none too happy with HBO. He told the New York Times that "much of what the author has written about me is pure fiction. It contained events that never occurred, words I never spoke and decisions attributed to me that I never made."
Even though he has not seen the movie, he reviewed a transcript of scenes in which he appears. Christopher also tells the Times that he wasn't given an opportunity to review the script --- as Baker was --- and even learned of the project through his tailor, who had been asked by the filmmakers to reproduce one of his suits.
Another figure likely to be unhappy is Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, played by Laura Dern, who comes across as nothing less than a puppet of the GOP. Baker says it "was sort of a caricature. That was really not a fair rendition of her. ...But the actress did a great job."
Baker seems to accept the film's dramatic license, admitting that had the recount turned out differently, so, too would the nature of his portrayal.
"I recognize that it is a movie," he says. "There are things in there that are not true, but that is because it is a movie....Movies like to simplify gray and complex issues into black and white images."
He notes that in one instance, his character says in a particularly hard-nosed moment, "Until this is over, I don't want to see a copy of the New York Times unless it's to wrap garbage." Baker says he never said that.
He also cites some of the film's omissions. He wishes that the movie could have captured the fact that the Florida dispute went to the U.S. Supreme Court twice, not once.
Nor is there any mention of a media consortium that studied the vote after Gore ultimately conceded. Its findings showed that if the Supreme Court would have allowed the recount to proceed under the rules requested by Gore, Bush still would have been elected. (County officials, however, were unable to deliver as many as 2,200 problem ballots to investigators, so the margin of error made the study "instructive yet not definitive").
Screenwriter Danny Strong sent Baker a copy of the script, and he sent a letter outlining an objection to an original ending, in which a final message flashes across the screen: "We will never know for certain who won Florida."
"I wrote them a letter where I said 'Wait a minute. We know who won Florida," Baker says. "The person who won Florida has been president for 7 years. He was sworn in by the chief justice of the Supreme Court."
It was taken out.
Instead, the movie ends with a momentous meeting and conversation on an airport tarmac between where Baker and Ron Klain (Kevin Spacey), the Gore lawyer and the figure portrayed at the center of the recount. The meeting itself never happened, but Baker calls it "a nice, bipartisan way to end the movie."
On May 20, Baker will host a screening of the movie at the James A. Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, followed by a discussion with former President Jimmy Carter. Baker and Carter produced a report in 2005 that called for such things as photo IDs for all voters, the impartial administration of elections and verifiable paper trails to back up electronic voting machines. Another recommendation was for a regional primary system --- something that would prevent the current Democratic impasse over the Florida and Michigan delegations.
Although he notes that the filmmakers and HBO "went out of their way" to reach out to both sides, ultimately he says he movie is "pretty sympathetic to the Democratic position, but that is understandable because they won the popular vote and not the electoral college."
"As I say, I thought the movie was quite entertaining and interesting," Baker says. "But I recognize that it was a movie. That is the way movies are."
A postscript: I talked to Strong earlier on Tuesday. He says he depended on extensive interviews with some of the principals in doing his research, as well as several different journalists books written about the recount, including Jeffrey Toobin's "Too Close to Call." (Toobin was an adviser on the pic).
Although the film features some invented scenes and dialogue, he says that it still reflects what really happened. For instance, in one scene, Klain is exasperated by the recount and says, "You know what is funny about all this? I am not even sure I like Al Gore." Klain never said it, but Strong said "that was sort of the feeling that you get from some of the stuff, from books, that he alienated some of his staff."
Strong says that Christopher's position in the film actually is "honorable."
"Maybe this wasn't the best tactic for a street fight, but he was very honorable" in worrying about how a protracted election fight would look to other countries, Strong says.
"I think it says more about those who criticize him" for taking that approach in the recount, Strong says.