Directed By Billy Corben
Starring – George Bush, Al Gore, Roger Stone
The Plot – The international custody battle over six-year old Elian Gonzalez triggers a political earthquake in Miami-Dade County in 2000, swaying the outcome of the presidential election.
The film is rated TV-MA
– Abundance of topics. Corben has certainly done his homework in assembling the ultimate compendium piece to the 2000 election, whose effect can be felt on a scale that is both locally and globally. Aside from this film summarizing the chaotic events of the presidential election, the documentary zeroes in specifically on the melting unease of Miami-Dade County, complete with its tribulations on Cuban immigrants and the emergence of communism on domestic shores. These matters are the heat that stirs the creative soup, but it’s the political tug-of-war for Gonzalez that blows the lid off of the pot, and makes for what was the single most important election in American history to that point. As diverse as the many talking points are within the creative direction of the film, the transitions are seamlessly synthetic, brought together by Corben’s sharp sense of storytelling that burns through each with the kind of magnetism of the strongest perfect storm.
– Teleporting presentation. Almost immediately from the introduction of president Bill Clinton to the senate floor, played to C&C Music Factory’s “Everybody Dance Now”, the film transports us to a simpler time of optimism and promise that could only stem from the dawn of the technological age. From there, Corben shows off his editing techniques, indulging us in a series of pop culture reminders and timely relevancies that audiences engage in throughout a series of visual channel changes to simulate our intake of such at home. It casts strong cultural relevance in the distinguishing time piece, which grants weight to our permanence of such in the transformation, but aside from that makes for an experience that colorfully plays into the unfolding mayhem before the world’s eyes, giving “537 Votes” a pleasantly nourishing taste of nostalgia that immerses us twenty years in the past with a butterfly effect for the future.
– Unlimited personality. Even with so much at stake throughout the entirety of the documentary, Corben’s one distinguishing trait has and always will be his complimenting humor, which plays wonderfully here in capturing the maniacal mayhem that captivated a political divide for 35 days. Part of it stems from the late night television footage from that he includes from institutions like “Saturday Night Live” or “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart”, but beyond that it’s the way Corben allows the details of the story to paint themselves, emitting a strong sense of irony and lunacy that feels too ridiculous to be real life. Finally in tow is an intentionally meandering musical score from Brian Robertson, a long time collaborator of Corben’s, who doubles down on the asinine with a flute and organ heavy series of compositions meant to elicit groans. America lost plenty on this most stressful election season, but thankfully they didn’t lose Corbin’s nourishing brand of humor, which twenty years in the future and a world more chaotic now than ever, allows us to look back and laugh with an election that laid the ground work for the controversies we still haven’t escaped from.
– Visual storytelling. From an abundance of interviews of insiders for both sides of the campaign, to an unlimited allowance of real time TV footage, “537 Days” captures a big budget appeal in its documentation, all the while preserving some psychology from the minds inside that made the pivotal movements. For my money, Stone, a Republican political consultant, is the major opportunity here, standing as one of Bush’s most loyal supporters in the fight of his life, all the while preserving the charisma in tow that has earned him the nickname ‘The Albino Assassin’. The visuals of the real time events play superbly to the audible narration accompanying them, and the pacing of the material itself is given ample time to breathe and feel effective to the audience without ever feeling redundant or stalling. It proves that HBO Go has the capabilities to compete with the big name studios, and that with complete features like this one they’re moving closer to bridging the gap for streaming services everywhere.
– The pacing. Choosing the feature length film direction for this documentary did it a huge service with regard to the measure of depth within the story. That’s not to say that the 2000 election doesn’t have plenty to chew on, as I previously elaborated towards, but that a political story rarely has the flavor or attention span to entertain its audience for weeks at a time, as opposed to a 105 minute presentation. It works perfectly here in regards to its transitions and movements, particularly in the opening act of the movie, where the ground work is laid for many small ingredients that cook towards something much bigger than any of them could’ve predicted. The rest of the film keeps up just as well, even if the spontaneity of channeling back and forth feels less opportunistic as the film persists. It made for an easy sit that breezes by with the kind of precision that hooks you from the opening shot, and cements Corben’s level of intrigue as a master storyteller even decades into an already impressive career as a documentarian.
– Timely parallel. In many ways, I believe that “537 Votes” and the 2000 presidential election simultaneously shows us the emergence in divide between two political parties that is wider today than it ever has been before. There are many observations that one could take from the film in how this polarization occurred, but for my money it was the controversy surrounding the events with the Miami recount that gave people a look into real life monumental corruption before their very eyes, making it an easily accessible excuse as time persists. This of course brings us to current day, at the moment of our own presidential controversy, with no shortage of ironies or coincidences that cement how little we’ve grown in the time since. It gives the film the perfect time of release which may or may not be accidental, and proves how little we’ve learned from history, despite a chance to get it right every four years.
– Wealth of knowledge. I was only 15 when the election in question took shape, but my curiosity of democracy and how it ran on a grand scale peaked my interest, and inspired me to soak up as much as I could. As it turns out, I knew very little about what pertained to behind the scenes, and Corben is more than anxious to oblige at satisfying my curiosity. Without spoiling anything, I certainly didn’t fully comprehend how the Gonzalez dynamic played such a huge key into the deciding political commentary of the Miami citizens, nor did I realize how strategic the recount itself was on both sides of the political coin. This is where documentaries like these thrive because they give such a specific accounting of an unforeseen angle, as to where we the audience just see things from an audience perspective on our news channel of choice. It paints a more vividly honest portrait than we’re used to, giving us unfiltered access to the kind of moments and discussions that motivate a candidate’s movements.
– Enveloping urgency. Very few films, documentary or non, resonate with the kind of unfiltered urgency that this film supplants in its explosively eye-opening third act. Aside from this being a mind-blowingly close election, decided on by a few hundred people throughout an entire country, the movie’s desire to express the importance of voting is attained in the many voices that were unjustifiably silenced by their city government. This is especially prevalent in a time when our country is split directly down the middle in terms of its two political parties. It continuously feeds into this mentality without feeling preachy or overbearing towards its obvious intentions, and establishes that our biggest asset in determining the future lies in the struggles of our pasts.
– Thought-provoking. There was never a point in the movie where I felt that we were finally going to get answers as to who won the election after the 10,000 discounted votes were included, but even with that said it’s the film’s open ended ambiguity between the hints and ballot dissections that pushed my curiosity even further. On the latter, we come to understand the flaws not only in the design of this ballot, but also in the lack of ballot emphasis from its voters that allowed many votes to be tossed by these treasuries. You could consider it one-sided jargon from a desperate political party, but the many campaign advisors suggesting that Dade county, a typical Democratic county, was overwhelmingly in their favor, at the very least had my attention to thinking what a Gore presidency would’ve looked like. This curiosity was satisfied with an epilogue closing sequence that hinted at Gore’s many technological and climate inspirations, a far cry from a Bush presidency that was the exact polar opposite in key issues.
– Uneven halves. While the first half of the documentary thrives with a 90’s aesthetic and overall energetically influenced presentation, Corben’s second half falls into spells of anemia with an inconsistency that creates a few problems for the information’s unlimited access. When the story switches from Gonzalez to behind the scenes matters with the controversy of the tallying votes, there’s not only a sense of the wrong people being interviewed for such, as the movie sticks close to the figures within the campaign instead of those involved with the recount, but also shells HBO’s own shameless product in doing so. This is realized through “Recount” a 2008 low budget film that HBO released in giving audiences a behind the scenes look at the information we the audience aren’t fully privy to. The problem is that there’s so little new information conveyed in this film that it often made me wonder why I wasn’t just watching “Recount” in the first place. On top of it all, the movie omits much about its experimental side in presentation for a conventional editing scheme that unfortunately settles in, and rids itself of any creative identity that made it stand out from its opposition in the movie’s opening half hour.
My Grade: 9/10 or A-