Dir. Joshua Michael Stern, US, 2008, 120 minutes.
Swing Vote is a motivational effort whichlurches between homespun sentimentality and topical satire, with the moral that echoes the American mythology that one vote can make a difference, even if it is cast by a beer-drinking boob who has just been laid off from his job inspecting eggs.
Yet this film packed with political cliches is unlikely to make a difference to American political culture or its distributor's bottom line, despite a dependable cast of stars including Kevin Costner, Kelsey Grammer, and Dennis Hopper. American audiences will be watching their politics this season on the television news, not at the cinema, while foreign interest in this type of political saga could be minimal outside Costner's fans. Like yesterday's newspapers, this may also be too topical to have a lengthy shelf life.
The man of destiny in Swing Vote is irresponsible single dad Ernest 'Bud' Johnson (Costner), named for his favourite beer, who won't register to vote in sleepy Texico, New Mexico, for fear of being called to jury duty. When Bud, drinking at a bar, forgets tomeet up with his studious young daughter, Molly (Madeline Carroll), she sneaks into a polling station, forges his signature, and does everything but make his choice for president before running off.
Director Joshua Michael Stern builds his comedy, predictably, around the media frenzy that erupts when the incomplete ballot is traced to Bud, who must now cast the deciding vote in a deadlocked national election. His trailer is under siege from a horde of reporters, including pretty young Kate Madison (Paula Patton), who smells a career-making story. Both the Republican president (Kelsey Grammer) and the Democratic challenger (Dennis Hopper) court the newly-unemployed drunk, shifting their positions on immigration and abortion shamelessly to get his vote.
The script by Stern and Jason Richman warms over a nostalgic Frank Capra glow, yet the Capra film to which it feels closest is Meet John Doe (1941), in which reporter Barbara Stanwyck enlists a homeless man (Gary Cooper) into a cynical political campaign. Swing Vote, shot by D.P. Shane Hurlbut, has the commercial glow of small-town Disney Americana, yet the edge only comes through in an occasional zinger line - unlike John Sayles' 2004 Silver City, which was brimming with anti-Republican invective. Were all the Hollywood re-write troops who might have added punch scripting speeches for real presidential aspirants instead'
Likewise, the politics have an earnest Disney silliness. The script is balanced to make both Republicans and Democrats look equally inane (and avoid offending constituencies in the movie's potential audience). There's no bloody war or even a sex scandal to bring too much reality into the picture (like, say, 1998's Primary Colors), despite relentless cutaways to real political commentators who observe the unfolding pageant.
As Bud, Costner is a likeable guy (similar to Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski) who drinks and curses, yet his character is weighed down by the film's 'let it never be said that a single vote counts for nothing' didacticism. Madeline Carroll as young Molly has the weariness of a child forced to be her father's parent. Neither Grammer nor Hopper are cynical enough to be plausible career politicians.
Steve Saklad's production design gets a universe of political details right, and the supporting cast is Swing Vote's strength, with Stanley Tucci as a savvy battle-hardened strategist (modelled on the Bush adviser Karl Rove) and Nathan Lane as a Democratic party operative who has never won an election. Insiders can guess which Washington veteran was the model for his character.
Kathy Morgan International
Joshua Michael Stern