Gene Page, Associated Press
Laura Dern plays Florida's secretary of state in "Recount."

LOS ANGELES — These days, the expression "dimpled chad" sounds more like a nickname for the latest contestant racking up votes on "American Idol." But eight years ago, it was all about not getting a vote for thousands of frustrated Florida residents whose balloting didn't count.

HBO takes us behind the scenes of that 2000 presidential election in the ambitious docudrama "Recount," premiering 7 p.m. MDT Sunday with an all-star cast that includes Kevin Spacey, Laura Dern, Tom Wilkinson and Denis Leary.

For weeks after the election, the Democratic and Republican parties each fought to assure a clear vote count in Florida, the last state to weigh in on a very tight race for the White House between Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush. The film portrays the efforts of both camps to tilt the scales, one seemingly fairly and one not, in order to give their candidate the greatest chance of winning.

"It's a really important story to tell, and it's one told in a way that's more of a thriller than it is a history lesson," says Spacey, who portrays Ron Klain, the former Gore chief of staff who ends up taking up the fair election cause for the then vice president.

The film plays out over a 36-day period, walking viewers through what took place from Election Day to the date the race was finally decided.

"We worked very hard to make it as historically accurate as possible," explains director Jay Roach, better known for zany comedies such as "Austin Powers" and "Meet the Parents." "It's meant to capture the essence of what actually went on within the state of Florida within that limited time frame."

Adds writer Danny Strong: "We felt we have to take you inside the sausage factory. Because if we don't look at what happened, it may never change."

To get the facts straight, Strong not only studied four respected books on the subject, but, over a three-week span, interviewed more than 40 participants, many of whom are portrayed in the film, including the real Klain and Baker. "I don't have a journalism background, so I instead focused on their feelings and what their experience was, to get a sense of how it affected them as people," the writer explains.

Director Roach also sought to portray the characters in the film as real people, to help the audience get inside their experience. "He really tried to humanize (my character) and keep a balance, so it was never a caricature," says Dern, who plays Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris.

Because she also held the title of co-chair to Bush's Florida campaign, Harris found herself at the center of the election storm. "She was very torn — less by morality and more by confusion," Dern suggests.

Though Harris didn't make herself available to Strong for interviewing, Dern did study countless press conference videotapes, learning to mimic Harris' emotional swing. "She'd seem in command one minute and out of breath and terrified the next."

Klain himself was well known to the politically involved Spacey, but the actor found that he, like many Americans, actually knew very little about what had taken place in Florida. As for his character, Spacey attempts to portray, again, the emotional roller coaster Klain went through during the process.

"I tried to get a sense of what it was like getting up every day and not knowing which way it was going to go, and always thinking it's going to be over — and it wasn't over," he explains, referring to the many fruitless attempts to restart the recount machinery.

Klain's drive, Spacey says, was not focused on Gore, but more on the electoral process. "His mandate the entire time was just, 'Let's just get all the votes counted.' Which doesn't seem unreasonable."

Assisting Klain was Gore's national field director, Michael Whouley, whose colorful vocabulary seems perfectly suited to the actor portraying him — Leary. "Whouley's not known for being prone to caring about people's feelings," he says, laughing.

Leary says the message of the film is simple: "Vote. I'm always astounded by how many people walk around and say, 'Oh, I don't really pay any attention to politics."'

I have a lot of relatives in Ireland, and not only do they know what goes on in Europe, but they eyeball what we do over here."

Spacey agrees: "If we're going to be looked at around the world as the bastion of democratic process, then it's our obligation to get it right."