The drama of politics. Oh indeed, says you. You probably believe that politics makes for rather poor entertainment on TV. Except for The West Wing. Well, two TV movies airing this weekend seek to make real, raw human drama from the peculiarities of politics. And entertain you. One's about an electoral recount. The other is about a constitutional change. Sound boring? They're not.
Recount (Sunday, TMN, Movie Central, 9 p.m.) is an HBO movie about the Florida recount in the U.S. presidential election in 2000. Courtroom manoeuvres. Hanging chads, dimpled chads. Remember that? Elijah (Sunday, CTV, 8 p.m.) is about Elijah Harper and the Meech Lake accord. Remember Meech? Quebec. Distinct society. Brian Mulroney blowing a gasket as Meech unravelled. Elijah Harper sitting in the Manitoba Legislature, holding an eagle feather, and saying one word: "No."
And here's a thing: I saw the two movies on successive days and, while the HBO production is the more glamorous and concerns high-stakes American politics, the one I remember most clearly and vividly is Elijah.
Recount is star-studded, smartly written and engaging. The only problem is that after a while you realize that it isn't half as surreal or gripping as what actually happened - what you experienced by watching the TV news or reading the paper. Kevin Spacey plays Ron Klain, an Al Gore aide who was once central to the campaign, was pushed aside and is now back in the inner circle with election day approaching. On the day itself, we see bewildered voters in Florida trying to figure out how to avoid voting for Pat Buchanan. We see the election-night TV coverage as one network after another says it's close but George W. Bush has won it. Then we see Ron Klain get a phone call informing him that the numbers being used by the networks are neither accurate nor conclusive. And Al Gore (who never really appears in the movie) retracts his concession.
From there, the weirdness is unleashed. Democrat Warren Christopher (John Hurt) is ultra-cautious about a legal battle to determine the presidency. (Christopher has seen the movie and denies he was really so wussy.) Tom Wilkinson is excellent as James Baker, who leads the Republican charge with ruthless efficiency; Denis Leary adds acerbic comedy as a Gore adviser, and Ed Begley Jr. plays David Boies, the main lawyer for Gore, as an eccentric genius. Laura Dern is superb as the flaky, self-important Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris.
It's black comedy, speculative about what went on behind closed doors. But, given that the main point is that the election count was seriously flawed, it isn't surreal enough.
Elijah is also a black comedy, but far more inventive. Using bits of animation and moments of demented satire, it gives us a biography of Elijah Harper (Billy Merasty) - born in Red Sucker Lake in northern Manitoba, attended residential schools, studied at the University of Manitoba, worked as a community activist, and was elected as an NDP MLA, the first Treaty Indian to be elected as a provincial politician. We get a lot of info from Harper's own perspective, which is that of a shy, principled man somewhat bewildered by the awfulness of the white world. In June of 1990, when the Manitoba legislature was asked to pass Meech unanimously, Harper took his stand.
The movie's jaunty tone doesn't always click - it sags into sentimentality in the middle - but it's often gloriously funny and smart. The scenes in which Mulroney's posse tries to shift Harper's position are hilarious. Maury Chaykin is excellent as former Manitoba premier Howard Pawley and Glen Gould does a ferocious turn as native leader Phil Fontaine. Written by Blake Corbet and directed by Paul Unwin, Elijah is one wonderful attempt to make the Meech mess a scorching comedy, but anchored by one truly principled man.
Also airing this weekend
S& M: Short & Male (Saturday, CTV, 7 p.m.) is Howard Goldberg's rather slight look at the world as seen by short men.
Sometimes funny, sometimes merely whiny, it's an uncomfortable mix of self-deprecating comedy and social observation. Test the Nation: Sports (Sunday, CBC, 8 p.m.) is Ron MacLean and Wendy Mesley conducting a mass quiz on sports trivia. CBC says, with unerring nitwittiness, "it separates the champs from the chumps." Birth of Israel (Sunday, Newsworld, 10 p.m.) is a BBC documentary about events in 1948, when David Ben Gurion announced the establishment of the state of Israel in the portion of Palestine allocated by the United Nations as a Jewish state.
Doyle's quick picks
This program carries the title Mexico: Crimes at the Border. Veteran investigative reporter Lowell Bergman looks at the lucrative business of human smuggling across the U.S.-Mexican border, and how some U.S. border guards have been corrupted by the trade. Just last week, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer was arrested in San Diego on suspicion of allowing smugglers to drive illegal aliens and drugs through a border checkpoint. The program aims to put a different spin on the issue of illegal immigration from Mexico.
PBS, 9 p.m.
The In-between World
of M.J. Vassanji
This is an exemplary, captivating profile of Vassanji, the Giller-winning author who is perhaps the least well-known of Canada's major writers today. Made by Robin Benger, the program is a delight because it captures a great deal about a man described at one point as "the shy Indian physicist" who happens to be a very important storyteller. We also get a vivid picture of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where Vassanji grew up.
Bravo!, 8 p.m.