It has been said that in politics, we get the candidates we deserve. The same could be said for movies. Nothing dictates more what you see at the multiplex than what has been successful at the box office and, as such, the rule is that vacuous, low-brow entertainment is what is playing on most screens. There have been some rare exceptions this year (Iron Man, The Dark Knight and Tropic Thunder) but by and large, what has cluttered nation’s screens have been made to distract or bludgeon us, and any movie that has the temerity to try to engage viewer’s minds or hearts has been brushed aside. Case in point: Kevin Costner’s fine, pointed political dramedy, Swing Vote.
This film was, unfortunately, doomed to fail at the box office. (To date, it has grossed a bit over $12 million after thirteen days in release.) It suffered from the Costner backlash, a widespread abhorrence of the actor that I have never been able to figure out, and the fact that in the midst of the season devoted to blowing stuff up real good, its theme is the current state of our political system. Don’t Costner and director Joshua Michael Stern know that people don’t go to the movies to think, they go to be entertained! (I hear this far too often from filmgoers and it simply makes my blood boil.)
Had audiences taken a chance on Vote they would have discovered: an unabashedly old fashioned film, a la Frank Capra, a pointed and timely condemnation of politicians, the media and an apathetic electorate, a poignant story concerning the strained relationship between a father and his daughter, and a startling new film talent.
The premise of the film is a stretch as it posits that the fate of a presidential election can come down to the casting of one vote, which happens to be in the hands of a first hand slacker, Bud Johnson (Costner). Still, and all, the way the circumstances that make this possible are presented, it’s no more far fetched than the devices Capra used in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (an errant coin toss leads to a nobody being named to the Senate), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (an everyman inherits a fortune from an uncle he never met) or Meet John Doe (a down on his luck baseball player is chosen at random to become a media star). I’ve read many complaints online about this plot device, which revolves around an electronic voting machine) and it seems as though critics are throwing the baby out with the bathwater where this is concerned, as the pay off in the film is one of the most emotionally satisfying I have seen this year.
As things pick up steam in the film, the two candidates for president, the clueless, republican incumbent (Kelsey Grammer) and the wishy washy democratic challenger (Dennis Hopper) come to court Bud’s vote and turn the struggling New Mexico town where he has just lost his job into a media circus. Before you know it, this voter without a clue is getting a tour of Air Force One, is having parties thrown in his honor and sees the candidates flip-flop on key issues if he happens to express an off-hand statement about a given subject. (My favorite is when the GOP quickly cuts a commercial extolling the gay rights. Grammer is wonderfully uncomfortable in the spot.)
This material is presented perfectly as it pointedly shows that the candidates as spineless buffoons, their campaign managers (Stanley Tucci and Nathan Lane) to be heartless and the system to be seriously flawed. All of these points are in dire need of being made and Stern, Costner and the rest of the crew do so with an earnestness that is genuine. However, as vital as these themes are, the true underpinning of the film lies elsewhere.
That would be in the relationship between Bud and his daughter Molly, a bright young girl who runs their household as her mother abandoned both of them years earlier. She is responsible and aware of what’s important in the world and she wants her father to be the same. She is the catalyst to Bud’s hoped for transformation and through her efforts he finds the will to try and be not only a better father, but a better friend and a better citizen. Newcomer Madeline Carroll inhabits this role like a second skin. You never see her acting — but rather, performing at an organic level that cannot be taught or analyzed. She is this soulful young girl on screen and it is impossible to overstate how honest she is here. Take a gander at a moment when she tearfully tries to explain her father’s absence at “Bring Your Dad to School” day. If you aren’t at least misty at the end of this sequence, your heart is dead.
I know that many will doubt this next statement but Costner is just as good during Bud’s big moment when he makes a statement about his own life before conducting a national debate between the two candidates. The actor digs deep here and delivers an earnest turn as he comes to terms with his failings as a human being on live television, vows to do better and implores others to do the same. There is no artifice here or overacting as the performer has done in the past. Costner has learned the power of stillness here and uses it to great effect.
Don’t get me wrong, Swing Vote is far from perfect. It is too long, suffers from pacing problems at times and bites off a bit more than it can chew. However, I would rather a film attempt great things than simply coast as so many of them do. I am not foolish enough to think that if a wide audience saw this film and embraced it, it would lead to socially change. I would like, however, to think that it has the possibility to get people thinking and discussing the issues that drive our society at large and our personal lives. Then again, maybe I am foolish.
Swing Vote is still playing at the Savoy 16 theater.
Runtime: 1h 40min — Rated PG-13 — Comedy