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August 2, 2008 |

By John Williams | Film | August 2, 2008 |

The debacle of the 2000 presidential election taught us, if anything, that it’s impossible for one vote to count. When more than 100 million votes are cast, it can be difficult to figure them out on the level of several thousand, much less one particular person’s preference. Still, one of our most stubborn national pieties is that your vote could be the deciding vote, as if we were thirteen people conducting a PTA meeting at the local elementary school.

Well, fine. Movies aren’t the place we go for stark realism, anyway. Ask Batman. So while some critics have snidely dismissed the premise of Swing Vote — that a presidential election hinges on the vote of one man in Texico, New Mexico — I’m perfectly willing to accept it as the plot for a fable. It’s most of everything else in the movie that stinks.

Kevin Costner plays Bud Johnson, a single father living in a trailer with his young daughter, Molly (Madeline Carroll). Bud works (when he works) packing eggs, but mostly he’s an alcoholic, a proudly uninformed citizen, and an incapable father. (Ever since Waterworld, Costner’s career has been the object of scorn, and it’s true that Bud is another character he could — and maybe does — play in his sleep. But his natural, goofy charm saves the character from being completely unsympathetic.) Molly is, miraculously, a devoted student who parents Bud ten times more than he returns the favor, and who lectures him on the importance of his civic duties as he fights a hangover to drive her to school. When Bud fails to meet Molly at the polls on voting day, as he promised, she attempts to vote for him. What happens next is, yes, contrived, but given the contrivance needed it could be worse.

Once officials pinpoint whose re-vote will determine the outcome, incumbent Republican president Andrew Boone (Kelsey Grammer) and Democratic nominee Donald Greenleaf (Dennis Hopper) camp out in Texico and stage campaigns tailored entirely to Bud.

Swing Vote is painfully unfunny. One Democratic operative calls an attack a “right-wing blog-o-smear.” When Bud drunkenly realizes that he left Molly waiting for him at the polls, he runs outside and bangs his head on a sign that reads, “Vote Today.” Father and daughter later exchange these lines: “I’ve been thinking.” “How refreshing.” These clunkers could be excused if Swing Vote was aimed at children, but the question of its intended audience is one of its greatest mysteries. Its thought process mostly occurs on the level of (dumb) children, but there’s enough coarse language and interest in political behavior to convince us that it’s speaking to adults. (There’s also a well executed but brutal scene in which Molly tracks down her estranged mother, played by Mare Winningham.)

On paper, Swing Vote would appear to have no hope. On screen, it’s not much different. Yet, some buried vein of subtlety keeps it from becoming a total disaster. There’s a way in which the movie uses the platitude of Every Vote Counts to shoot holes in the platitude and get at a larger, more community-minded truth. When President Boone learns that Bud’s favorite fishing spot is in danger, he cancels its destruction, which he had promised corporate donors, and gives it protected status instead. When Greenleaf hears that Bud may be pro-life (the movie later muddles the truth of Bud’s opinion, to keep him from alienating either potential half of its audience), he ditches his pro-choice stance and makes a commercial in which happy children vanish from a playground.

As the candidates kiss up to Bud, we (and they) see how ridiculous and capricious a system would be that so strictly honored voters on an individual level, and how politicians would have to be even more flexible (unprincipled) than they are now in order to succeed in that system. That large numbers of votes are better than one is the point for both candidates and their supporters, after all.

Bud learns that while he’s been considering how to vote, thousands of Americans have written to him about their worries. So as Molly and others help him prepare questions for the candidates in a final televised debate, he realizes that what’s important is not him, but the concerns of everyone else in the country, everyone he now clearly represents. That’s not a bad lesson. Costner’s final speech, a preamble to the debate, is given in silly circumstances, against a silly-looking backdrop, but I’ll be damned if he didn’t put a lump in my throat. If the rest of the movie had done the same, or elicited a hearty laugh or two, I might recommend it. As it is, Swing Vote is an effort with its heart in the right place and its brain somewhere else entirely.

John Williams lives in Brooklyn. He’s a freelance writer. He blogs at A Special Way of Being Afraid.

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Swing Vote / John Williams

Film | August 2, 2008 |

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