Swing Vote

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Touchstone Pictures/Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Joshua Michael Stern / USA 2008

If Swing Vote seems ridiculously improbable (and it is) — the U.S. presidency coming down to the vote of just one man in New Mexico — then it might be best to remind yourself that having the presidency coming down to the votes of just one county in Florida seemed far-fetched once upon a time too. Swing Vote is a political fable, a satire not meant to be taken as reality but certainly meant to be taken seriously. It arrives in the best tradition of other political comedy satires like Dave, Wag the Dog, Bob Roberts and Bulworth.

Bud Johnson (Kevin Costner) is your typical American, if by typical American you mean someone who has more in common with Larry the Cable Guy than, well, pretty much anyone you or I know. Bud is a good-for-nothing, apathetic drunk but he’s certainly likeable enough. His most redeeming quality, by far, is his daughter, Molly (dazzling newcomer Madeline Carroll), a precocious, overachieving 12-year-old with wisdom far beyond her years. How the gifted Molly ever sprung from Bud’s DNA is beyond me.

The last thing slacker Bud ever thought was that he would find himself with the power to alter the course of an entire nation, but after a voting machine glitch (and more than a little mischievousness by Molly) results in his needing to recast his ballot for President of the United States, Bud lands in the center of a national feeding frenzy. The election has come down to just one vote: his!

Ignorant of both of the candidates (Republican incumbent Kelsey Grammer and Democratic challenger Dennis Hopper) and their issues, Bud has to fend off thousands of ravenous media pundits, a cottage industry that springs up overnight to court him, and the sycophantic contenders themselves (along with their ruthless campaign managers, the terrific Nathan Lane and Stanley Tucci) on his way to making the most important decision of his entire life. Ultimately, Swing Vote gives us the perfect and only ending possible.

Swing Vote’s most uncontrollable laughter comes during the film’s second act, as the candidates try everything in their power to win Bud over to their side. If he so much as hints that he feels one way or another about a particular issue, the dueling parties pounce, even if that means that Republicans suddenly find themselves supporting the environment and gay marriage, and the Democrats pro-life and anti-immigration. Neither party is spared the skewering. Swing Vote never picks sides and yet somehow still manages to never feel watered down or ideologically constrained.

Remarkably, Swing Vote manages to embrace both high-jinx and pathos, liberally mixing scenes of ridiculous comedy with profound, shockingly unexpected seriousness in a tonally-tricky recipe that never once sours in our mouths. Costner, who has been taking time off from acting to perform with his country band (featured in the film), returns with a comically shaded character straight out of Bull Durham and Tin Cup. A one-note actor he may be, but Costner is perfect for this part.

Swing Vote, for all its over-the-top satire, hits pretty close to home. It is not beyond comprehension that if such an impossible scenario actually occurred, this is how it would play out. That’s the point. The film exposes our political system to be one of bribes and shameless pandering. Yet, beneath all the disgust of watching good men and their ideals become corrupted by expediency and compromise, is one simple truth — neither party, no matter how powerful, can move forward without Bud Johnson’s vote. A single man can hold up the entire political process because, in our system, a single, average American still has that much power.

© 2008 Brandon Fibbs. All rights reserved.

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