Swing Vote (2008)

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Joshua Michael Stern

To precocious twelve-year-old Molly Johnson (an impeccable Madeline Carroll), voting is not only an optimistic privilege but it’s also an American citizen’s “civic duty.” However, to Molly’s under-achieving father whom — for the zero parenting he offers — she fittingly calls Bud (Kevin Costner), voting in America simply risks the chance that you’ll wind up on the fast track for jury duty. Unfortunately for Bud, along with making the family budget and packing his daily lunch, Molly registered her father to cast his vote, aligning him as a political “independent” since she proclaims that “the two-party system neglects the working poor.”

While Lou Dobbs would no doubt beam with pride, Bud struggles to make sense of his daughter. This is especially the case when — in equal fascination of the electoral process as well as her tie-in school project — Molly reveals that she took the trouble to fill in her parental political questionnaire for Bud because she wanted to make him “sound smart.” Despite his protests and canned statements that voting is useless, Molly demands that her father meet her at the polling place after school with a peck on the cheek and a warning to Bud, namely, “screw this up and I’m leaving you.”

And while Molly has a fruitful day delivering a beautifully worded political essay and ends up on the news after local Texico, New Mexico reporter Kate Madison (Paula Patton) decides to feature it in the evening broadcast, Bud’s prospects that day are far less successful. With incriminating footage that depicts Bud ruining more of the eggs than he’s able to neatly package in the plant where he works — not to mention the fact Bud hasn’t punched in on time in six months and proceeded to take thirty-one sick days — before he’s officially laid off, his boss and former high school friend asks him to give him one good reason not to let him go. Foreshadowing his inability to make a decision which will propel the rest of Swing Vote's plot, needless to say Bud can’t offer him any explanations.

Later, predictably forgetting his promise to Molly until it’s nearly too late, Election Day ends on a far stranger note after a bizarre computer error concerning Bud’s vote makes the results of the day — already in a deadlock for the presidency — all boil down to whom Bud will vote for ten days later when, by oath, he swears he must recast his vote. Literally holding the fate of the government in his hands as his vote will decide which candidate earns swing state New Mexico’s five electoral votes and ensures him the presidency, Bud is overwhelmed by the media reaction as every major outlet from MTV to CNN to the BBC sets up a stakeout right outside his trailer. And just as quickly, political organizations start flooding into the tiny town that — before the gaffe — had been so inconsequential it wasn’t even on the state map.

However, the story really heats up when both candidates journey out to try and win over Bud by any means necessary. Pulling out all the stops and White House goodie bags he can carry, the first of the two competing front-runners, the favored Republican incumbent President Andrew Boone (a pitch-perfect Kelsey Grammar) arrives in Texico complete with the aptly named Martin Fox, his amoral strategist, in tow (Stanley Tucci). Also vying for Bud’s ear — or rather his vote — the earthy Democratic challenger Donald Greenleaf (Dennis Hopper), who along with his campaign manager Art Crumb (Nathan Lane) promises a racially blind, all inclusive “rainbow” White House, pack up their “Truth Train” and “Operation Real Deal” to make the long trek to the desert. Although the Dems learn that — while they can’t even begin to compete with Air Force One — their secret weapon is none other than Willie Nelson, who was the subject of a tribute band that Bud had played in before his rhythm section ended up in the slammer.

In an effort to better understand Bud, the candidates and their smarmy managers resort to shameless pandering, insincere flattery, and manipulation, including letting the dimwitted, perpetual beer drinker win at poker or using cue cards to make small talk with Bud about fishing. Most memorably, this results in a wonderfully hilarious speech by Grammar likening his role as commander-in-chief to that of a quarterback, breaking foreign policy down with the aid of football terminology. Grammar nails every scene he’s in and nobody plays a buffoon or the prototypical blue collar American male quite like Kevin Costner, although he’s essentially recycling the far more likable characterizations he crafted in Bull Durham and Tin Cup.

However, by making our lead character such an idiotic Homer Simpson-like oaf, we’re laughing at Bud rather than with him throughout the film’s entirety. And far more often than I felt empathy for him, I was surprised to find myself actually loathing him numerous times throughout because of his complete inability to see beyond himself and understand not just the gravity of the situation but recognize how it’s all affecting his daughter. Speaking of which, as Molly, the young Madeline Carroll completely steals the film and our hearts in the process, especially in a scene wherein she shows far more worldliness and morality than her father ever could, while breaking down in tears in front of her classroom, telling white lies in order to make her father sound like he actually cares about the country he’s living in and his fellow Americans.

For a comedy, Swing Vote is a bit more melancholic than perhaps director Joshua Michael Stern, along with his co-writer Jason Richman, had planned since there’s nothing funny about child neglect; but they try to keep the satire swinging along with the mystery of Bud’s vote and make great use out of their supporting players in the process. As the candidates begin to address Bud directly in a series of new political ads, suddenly Costner’s Bud becomes his very own Truman Show, being followed and analyzed around the clock in every journalistic medium. Although quality wise, Swing Vote is less like Truman Show and more like EdTV.

However, hilarity ensues as the candidates embrace political flip-flopping as the Republicans suddenly promote gay marriage and environmental protection with the Democrats tackling illegal immigration and embracing the pro-life movement simply because the inarticulate Bud misspoke a few times while being interviewed by the beautiful local, ambitious newswoman Kate Madison. In an underdeveloped subplot, Madison, who shares a bond with Bud’s brainy daughter, must reconcile her ethics with her desire to get ahead in the business, seeing Bud’s story as the ultimate break in getting the hell out of her tiny town and station run by George Lopez in order to follow in the footsteps of idols like Paula Zahn.

With the inclusion of an “everyman” and a “reporter with a conscience,” Stern reaches to emulate the type of underdog film that Frank Capra perfected with Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. And while the performers elevate the material, Stern forgot the fact that what made Capra’s films such a success is they delivered us a hero we could root for and one whom - despite not being the smartest - had a heart as big as the White House and therefore endeared us to him from the get-go. Predictably, Costner’s Bud has a wake-up call late into the film but it’s rushed and protracted — crammed into the last twenty minutes, making it pay off less than it could have had we seen glimmers of his goodness earlier on.

While it’s not as cynically intelligent as Wag the Dog or Bulworth, nor as paranoid as the underrated Man of the Year, there’s no doubt this film plays much better during this particular election year with audiences growing weary of endless coverage of the candidates and outrageous accusations and distracting spin. Despite this, Swing’s sound bites and satire get awfully repetitive in the last hour of the film’s surprisingly lengthy running time.

And similar to the way that the issues a voter cares most about are often neglected as soon as their candidate hits the Oval Office, on my way out of Stern’s film I felt like I’d just voted again. For instead of contemplating any food for thought by recalling some truly terrific scenes and stellar performances, I wondered what would have happened if the film hadn’t been ultimately overshadowed by such an inconsistent screenplay. Now that’s something that calls for a re-vote or at least, in the case of Swing Vote — political comedy reform.