Last week, I critiqued Aaron Sorkin and his film “The Trial of the Chicago 7” for his inaccurate depiction of the events of 1968 and 1969. It’s common to find inaccuracies in a drama film based on history because the screenwriters will change important events to benefit a more engrossing screenplay. I understand this dramatic motivation, but I still expect more from them.
On the subject of accuracy in filmmaking, many people will watch documentaries believing that they are honest depictions of events. News flash: documentaries are not always accurate either.
This attention to inaccuracy and exaggeration was on my mind as I watched HBO Max’s documentary, “537 Votes,” which is about the international custody battle of Elián González and its influence on the 2000 presidential election. I must admit that my focus on the facts was easily distracted by director Billy Corben’s amusing approach to the subject.
In the first minutes of his film, Corben hooked me with his juxtaposition of C&C Music Factory’s “Gonna Make You Sweat” and shots of Al Gore awkwardly kissing his wife and George W. Bush flipping off a camera. This oddly satisfying combination of blunders set the tone for the rest of the film.
I don’t believe that “537 Votes” is a wholly accurate depiction of the 2000 election and the recount in Florida. Still, it is highly entertaining for history buffs who want to revisit the energy of that bizarre time. Corben makes the case that Republicans were up to some screwy shenanigans and stole the election from the Democrats and Al Gore. That may be true, but Corben fails to make a compelling argument because he lacks interviews from critical figures.
For instance, Bush and Gore don’t make appearances, and only a handful of Republican and Democratic campaign staff do. One of those individuals is Roger Stone, who is called a liar by one of his reported colleagues. This in-fighting within the Republican party calls their message into question.
What was most captivating about this film is that Corben does make a substantial effort to show how the handling of Elián González by the American government may have cost Gore the election.
When González arrived in America, I was nearly 9 years old, and my understanding of the event came from an unlikely source: “Saturday Night Live.” Corben understands that I wasn’t alone. 1999-2000 began a golden age of comedic political commentary, and Corben exploits that any chance he gets.
By showing clips from “SNL,” “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “South Park,” he shows how the country learned to get its news from comedy shows rather than local stations. Moreover, the director perfectly captures how popular media reflects American life and vice versa.
After watching “537 Votes,” I would love to see Corben make more documentaries about other significant American events through a popular media lens. This format has plenty of potential, but it’s a difficult balance between comedic commentary and journalism. When Corben leans too far into the commentary, he hurts his core message.
On multiple occasions, Corben’s interview subjects make convincing points that forced me to reexamine my understanding of the 2000 election and the arrival of González. But he also might step too far at points when he allows his subjects to play soothsayer. Regardless, “537 Votes” is one of the most original and entertaining political documentaries that I’ve ever seen, and I highly recommend it to anyone who loves American history and politics.