Perhaps the biggest compliment that can be paid to Swing Vote is that, as a contemporary film about American politics, it seems genuinely well-intentioned. It doesn’t shy away from the Big Political Issues — tackling immigration, the environment, and even abortion. Yet it manages to wring laughs out of them, because the film takes pains to remain explicitly bipartisan.
The film’s premise is novel, even if it strains credulity. Kevin Costner plays Bud Johnson, a no-account alcoholic who lives in a trailer and works at the local egg-packing plant in the tiny burg of Texico, New Mexico. He can’t keep his life together, but his precocious 12-year-old daughter, the Lisa Simpson-esque Molly, does her best to keep him pointed in the right direction.
With Election Day approaching, Molly begs her father to let her join him in the voting booth for a school project — though he has no interest in voting. That day, Bud is fired for what amounts to gross incompetence, and promptly heads out to get drunk. Half an hour before the polls close, Molly finds her father passed out in his truck outside his favorite watering hole.
Molly’s goody-two-shoes tendencies get the best of her. She’s ashamed that her father isn’t living up to the “social contract” of voting. So she slips passed some sleepy poll workers in an attempt to vote for her father. She shoves his ballot into the electronic voting machine, and just as she’s about to vote the machine accidentally gets unplugged with the ballot still in it. She sneaks out of the polling place before being caught.
The presidential election turns out to be a squeaker. The next thing Bud and Molly know, the New Mexico attorney general visits them in the middle of the night in a panic, Bud covers for his daughter and swears (on a bible!) that the undigested ballot is his. Bud doesn’t really understand that his district, the state’s electoral votes, and the national election all hang on his vote. The state wants him to recast his ballot in ten days — and so a single vote from a drunken loser with no interest in politics will decide the leader of the free world.
Things quickly spiral out of control from there. With the whole world watching, Bud is identified by a local TV newswoman, and the media and the political establishment descend on Bud’s trailer and hometown and begin trying to sway his vote. In other words, the film is Washington Comes to Mr. Smith.
The incumbent Republican President (Kelsey Grammar) and the Democratic challenger (Dennis Hopper) both try furiously to sway Bud’s vote, leading to some of the film’s funniest moments. The candidates pander shamelessly: When Bud complains about losing his job to “insourcing” — illegal immigrants taking American jobs — the hyper-liberal Democratic candidate runs TV ads where he personally chases down immigrants at the border. When Bud is upset that a river he likes to fish might be dammed up, the GOP president names the river a wildlife crusade and introduces a very un-Republican environmental plank.
The film gets a lot of laughs out of these politicians, who are spineless puppets at the mercy of craven campaign managers who’ll do anything to win. The campaign managers nearly steal the show — and that has a lot to do with the films solid casting. Stanley Tucci does a good job of breathing life into what would otherwise be a Karl Rove caricature, and Nathan Lane is more entertaining than annoying (for once) as a Democratic operative who has previously lost seven presidential elections and will now do anything to win this time. (Bob Shrum, call your office.)
But the film is truly unique in one respect: It is not content to let phony and dishonest politicians shoulder the blame for what ails America. It points the finger squarely at the electorate for demanding that politicians tell us what we want to hear.
Without giving too much more of the film away, once Bud realizes he’s letting his daughter down, he sobers up and manages to transition from a total buffoon to someone who takes his civic responsibility seriously. The film ends with Bud giving a televised speech before the entire nation, in which he confesses to being a free-rider in a land of opportunity and admits that he has blamed a host of external political forces for his woes — when his real problem is that he refuses to take ownership of his own life. He has never served or sacrificed, and he knows he can’t honestly participate in the political process without acknowledging his own problems first.
Conveniently wrapping up the film with such a soliloquy is generally a hoary convention, but it’s hard to remember when a film concluded with a Big Speech by the lead character so effectively.
It helps that Costner’s performance is sincere and likable, coming from a guy who has made a slew of bad films in the last decade. But even more impressive is the performance by Madeline Carroll as Molly, easily the film’s best. Blessedly, Swing Vote isn’t all lightweight, if well-targeted, political satire. It manages to shoehorn in a truly affecting subplot about Molly’s desperate attempts to get her Dad to care about anything that’s important to her, let alone the political process.
When Molly runs away to be with her drug-addicted, absentee mom, Bud is forced to step up and put his daughter’s needs before his own. Johnson’s transformation from an irresponsible goof-off to concerned citizen over the course of the film’s two hours would have fallen flat, if we had not first seen his altogether believable transformation into engaged fatherhood.
Ultimately, Swing Vote is far from a perfect film, and it sidesteps a lot of tricky questions. (For instance, it all too conveniently sidesteps the issue of who eventually gets Bud’s vote.) But as a piece of popular entertainment that ambitiously takes on America’s biggest political problems, it speaks more than a few truths and coats them in enough good humor to be a genuine dialogue-starter in both Red and Blue America.
– Mark Hemingway is a staff reporter with National Review Online.