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August 6, 2008

FILM REVIEW: Kevin Costner’s Swing Vote an Election Year Winner


By D.F. Krause

And you thought “swing vote” Anthony Kennedy – the maybe-I-will-maybe-I-won’t Supreme Court Justice – had a lot of power. He’s got nothing on Bud Johnson.


In Kevin Costner’s new film Swing Vote, directed by Joshua Michael Stern and co-produced by Costner and Jim Wilson, Costner’s apathetic and underachieving Bud becomes the focus of the nation’s attention when a presidential election results in a deadlock – and Bud’s fouled-up ballot means his re-vote will decide the outcome.


Previews described Bud as a “lovable loser.” This reviewer must dissent to a degree. There’s not much lovable about Bud. An apparent convicted felon (I guess felons have voting rights in this film), he misses work with regularity, screws up the job when he does show up and gets drunk and forgets to pick up his daughter from school.


Bud is so oblivious to the consequences of his own behavior that he needs said 11-year-old daughter Molly (Madeline Carroll) to explain why he always gets stuck eating egg salad sandwiches for lunch – because it’s all the budget will allow after he spends the rest on beer.


But Bud doesn’t have to be lovable for the film to work. Indeed, that would have sacrificed the film’s best qualities to cliché.

Bud’s saving grace is Molly, played skillfully by newcomer Carroll. Molly is a civic-minded, precocious paragon of responsibility who is determined not only to avoid following in her father’s irresponsible footsteps, but ultimately to make a positive difference in the world. Molly’s degree of advanced maturity is implausible given her surroundings, but you’d like to think an adolescent can rise above the disadvantages she faces – and because she does, she provides her rudderless father with the direction to steer his way through his unsought and unmerited 15 minutes of fame.


Swing Vote is a welcome election-year election movie whose point is not to favor one side or the other. Instead, by personalizing the choice of the next president down to a single, politically disinclined voter, it examines the extent to which the political process has become largely irrelevant to the real lives of Americans.


Both candidates, incumbent Republican President Andrew Boone (Kelsey Grammer) and Democratic challenger Donald Greenleaf (Dennis Hopper) descend upon Bud’s small New Mexico hometown – entourages in tow – to try to woo him during the 10-day interlude between Election Day and his scheduled re-vote. The resulting cacophony is the film’s satirical zenith. With the “help” of their respective political operatives, (played by Stanley Tucci and Nathan Lane), the candidates misinterpret and overanalyze Bud’s awkward public statements, resulting in a misdirected panderfest that has the Republican embracing gay marriage while the Democrat appears in an anti-abortion ad that can only be described as a hilarious spoof on the growing unseriousness with which the nation treats such a serious issue.


But the strongest aspect of the film is the honesty with which it treats Bud’s own life and choices. It would have been easy to portray his character as a victim of the political system’s neglect. But Bud, prodded by his daughter’s gentle admonishments and the weight of the responsibility he suddenly faces, can’t escape the truth that he has largely forged his own path by “drifting and drinking” while others chose to sacrifice and serve. Costner plays Bud so effectively that you quickly forget it’s Costner – which is hard to do when you’re watching an actor with such a familiar resume.


Almost every major character in the film gives in to the temptations of the moment, including an otherwise virtuous local TV reporter (Paula Patton), who earns Molly’s trust, only to violate it and eventually redeem herself. The only upright character (at least among the adults) is Lewis (Chip Esten), a Secret Service agent whose round-the-clock presence in the Johnson home provides a temporary example of duty and stability for Molly – and ultimately an example for Bud as he begins to resolve to change his own character.


But no one in the film is beyond redemption – save the media throngs who characteristically overkill the story and the political operatives who long since sold their souls for victory at any price.


Some real-life parallels seem obvious. Lane’s Democratic operative has run seven national campaigns without ever winning. (Bob Shrum?) Tucci, playing his Republican counterpart, has never lost but is accused by Molly of having sold out all decency in the process. (Sounds like the popular caricature of Karl Rove, if not the genuine article.)


One wonders if the many media figures and other celebrities who make cameos in the film realize that the joke’s on them. Arianna Huffington speculating about what the Founding Fathers would think is theater of the absurd. Is she mocking herself, or is she being mocked without realizing it?


In the end, the story is not really about which of Bud’s options would be the right one. It’s about his coming to terms with himself, the choices he has made and their implications to the larger world around him – not to mention the smaller world of his ramshackle home and his inexplicably devoted daughter.

Bud is not a bad guy. He just doesn’t see the point, until it stares him so starkly in the face that he can’t miss it. I suspect that many, hoping for more biting satire or a more devastating partisan theme, will fail to recognize the point of this film. But if you look in the right place, you can’t miss it, just like Bud finally looked in the right place and couldn’t miss the truth about himself.


Three stars out of four


© 2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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