2 August 2008 | Buddy-51
works better as a human drama than as a political satire
If the 2000 Presidential election could be decided by a single county in Florida (with a little help from the United States Supreme Court, of course), imagine what it would be like if the decision ever came down to a single individual voter! That's the scenario put forth by "Swing Vote," a political fantasy that will probably be remembered more for launching the career of a talented young actress than for any insight it might offer into the political process.
Bud Johnson is a working-class divorced dad who lives in a broken-down trailer with his bright, twelve-year-old daughter, Molly - a youngster who is as astute and savvy about real world issues and politics as her father is ignorant and apathetic. Through a complicated fluke of fate, Bud finds himself in the unenviable position of being the sole swing vote in an otherwise deadlocked presidential contest. Suddenly, Bud is living in the glare of the media spotlight, besieged by candidates, campaign managers, handlers, celebrities and various special interest groups all vying for his vote.
Political satire rarely works on screen for the simple reason that it is either so slanted (usually towards the liberal side) that it winds up preaching mainly to the converted, or it's kept so inoffensive and generic that it loses any edge it might have had and becomes an exercise in watered-down, self-congratulatory Capraesque populism. "Swing Vote," oddly enough, falls into both categories at once - with conservatives likely to view it as little more than a two-hour commercial for the Democratic Party (or at least the issues they stand for) and move on. In strictly cinematic terms, "Swing Vote," co-written by Jason Richman and Joshua Michael Stern and directed by Stern, is really two movies folded into one. The first is a sometimes touching story of a father/daughter relationship in which the child is parent to the father. Kevin Costner (who pretty much financed the project himself) pours on the charm as a boozy, irresponsible slacker who's more interested in popping open a beer can and plopping down in front of the TV set than in actively rearing his daughter. Relative newcomer Madeline Carroll is a real find as the no-nonsense, wise-beyond-her-years Molly who takes care of her dad and isn't afraid to speak truth to power when the situation calls for it. Whenever the film is concentrating on the interplay between these two characters, it hits a responsive chord in the viewer. In fact, the scene in which Molly confronts the alcoholic mother who abandoned her (wonderfully played by Mare Winningham) makes for some genuinely powerful and gripping human drama.
Unfortunately, the second and much larger portion of the film (that is to say, the political part) doesn't fare nearly so well. Its revelation that politics is a dirty business - i.e. that it often prizes empty platitudes and sound bites over exploring issues of substance, and that it appeals to voters' greed, fears, ignorance and prejudices to win votes - is hardly an earth-shattering one at this late stage of the game, true though it may be. The film has lots of big-name stars - Kelsey Grammar, Dennis Harper, Nathan Lane, Stanley Tucci, George Lopez, Judge Reinhold - and a number of actual TV pundits and commentators throwing themselves into their roles with admirable aplomb, but the material isn't clever or sharp enough to really deliver the goods. Everyone, except for the two main characters, is quickly reduced to a "type" and the attempts at political parody are fairly obvious and lightweight compared to what we find in venues like "The Daily Show" or "The Colbert Report."
"Swing Vote"'s clarion call for all individuals to take their responsibility as citizens seriously and to become actively involved in the political process can't help but be uplifting and inspiring, especially in a presidential election year. The filmmakers just needed a bolder, more sophisticated vehicle from which to sound that call.
My advice is to look past all the political nonsense and concentrate on the beautiful performance by the young Ms. Carroll instead - and be present at the birth of a brand new star.