Swing Vote (United States, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
Swing Vote Poster

In the past, it has been difficult to get the public interested in political films. This is especially true of younger viewers who are not old enough to participate in the voting process. 2008 may be different, however, with the "rock star" candidacy of Barack Obama resulting in high interest in the Presidential race and unprecedented ratings for news channels and programs when they highlight election issues. It remains to be seen, however, whether the national interest in real politics will translate into an appreciation of the fictional politics presented in Swing Vote.

Swing Vote marries mild satire with Capra-esque melodrama in a formula that works surprisingly well. The film also avoids preaching and, for a movie about politics, is careful not to take one side or the other. The movie is neither anti-Democrat nor anti-Republican. While one could argue that parts of the movie sound a little like a high school civics lesson, those segments are small. Certainly, if Swing Vote has a message, it's that "every vote counts," but it also has quite a bit to say about what both parties will do to get that vote.

The set-up is contrived, but it does what it needs to do to get the main thrust of the story underway. Bud Johnson (Kevin Costner) is a single father living in a trailer in a small New Mexico town. He devotes his days to working at an egg packing plant and spends his evenings at the local watering hole. He has sole custody of a daughter, Molly (Madeline Carroll), but that's mainly because her mother is an even less fit parent than he is. Molly, who is bright and civic-minded, demands that her father participate in the Presidential election between Republican incumbent Andrew Boone (Kelsey Grammer) and Democrat challenger Donald Greenleaf (Dennis Hopper). Instead of meeting Molly at the polling place, however, a drunk Bud collapses in the front seat of his truck. Molly, taking advantage of lax security, sneaks in to vote in her father's stead but a malfunction of the voting apparatus causes the vote not to be counted. This might not ordinarily be a big deal, but the election turns out to be razor-thin, with the winner of New Mexico's five electoral votes going to the White House, and Bud's single vote will determine which way New Mexico leans. When his identity is leaked to the press, Bud ends up at the center of a maelstrom of publicity and becomes the target of media campaigns by both Boone and Greenleaf.

First and foremost, this is the story of how one apolitical man traverses the long road from apathy to caring. The catalyst for this is the love he bears for his daughter and his eventual desire not to let her down (after he does so glaringly in the film's most moving scene, where she defends him in front of her classmates with tears streaming down her face). The human element of the movie - the relationship between Bud and Molly - is handled better than any of the political material. It can be hard to care on an emotional level about lofty ideals like "love of country" or "the importance of one vote," but it's easier to relate to the interaction between a father and daughter.

The filmmakers deserve credit for making both candidates likeable men who are motivated not by greed or a lust for power but by a genuine vision of what the country can be. Swing Vote demonizes neither Democrats nor Republicans, but it shows how, in the heat of the campaign, the "win at all costs" mantra takes over. The rationale is simple: In order to implement their policies, they have to be in office, and in order to get into office, they have to win the election. So lying or falsifying a position in order to attract votes is a reasonable tactic because it serves the greater good. This position is embraced by the Democrat campaign manager (Nathan Lane) and his Republican counterpart (Stanley Tucci), although it causes both candidates qualms of conscience.

The movie does an effective job satirizing the kind of media feeding frenzy that would result from this situation, as hoards descend upon a man who is as unqualified to do interviews as he is to hand-pick the next President. Swing Vote strives for a level of verisimilitude as well, with well-known faces like Chris Matthews and Larry King making appearances. And there's some funny material, such as a sequence in which the Democrats begin advocating pro-life and anti-immigration stances while the Republicans become pro-environment, anti-big business. Whatever it takes…

There's also a subplot about a local reporter, Kate Madison (Paula Patton), who sees this story as her meal ticket to a national career. She's the one who first breaks the story and uses a bond she forms with Molly to potentially further her aims. In the end, however, she becomes more than just another opportunist trying to find the best way to use Bud's fifteen minutes as a means of self-promotion. (However, there is thankfully no obligatory romance between Kate and Bud.)

Kevin Costner is at home as the irascible Bud, who at times is more of an anti-hero than a hero. He is frequently outshone by young Madeline Carroll, an actress with a thin resume who is 2008's find of the year. She steals scenes from Costner at will and makes Paula Patton fade into the background. Kelsey Grammer and Dennis Hopper are have the requisite charisma and heft to play the candidates; it's refreshing to see men running for president who aren't portrayed as sleazebags or ignoramuses. Stanley Tucci and Nathan Lane present suitably predatory facades, although even they aren't villains in the truest sense of the word.

Swing Vote ends on a note that emphasizes to audiences that the movie isn't about which candidate wins but about the election process and the man who must make the decision. The film takes a simple, if somewhat hard-to-accept, premise and uses it as a springboard for a motion picture that turns out to be both smart and mature. Yes, there are some "Hollywood" moments to be found, but director Joshua Michael Stern has the courage to take the story in some unexpected directions. Swing Vote is more subtle and insightful than the dumbed-down comedy the marketing campaign would have us believe it to be.

Swing Vote (United States, 2008)

Run Time: 1:59
U.S. Release Date: 2008-08-01
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1