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This Week in Film: Swing Vote

Written by: Mike Caccioppoli, Feature Film Critic

ImageThis predictable comedy nevertheless highlights the best in Kevin Costner.

I can remember exactly where I was on Election Day in November 2000 because I found myself in Fort Lauderdale, Florida which was just about ground zero in the recount mess. It was a huge coincidence since I rarely travel to Florida and had just landed hours before the election results were coming in. What at first seemed impossible began to take shape as the most bizarre election in our nation’s history. In a state with over six million votes cast, fewer than six hundred ended up deciding the election. I talk about that election because there will be some critics who simply will not be able to get past the premise of Swing Vote, a film in which one man’s vote will decide who the next President will be. While the premise certainly is fantasy is it really that much of a stretch considering what happened in 2000 and what can certainly happen again?

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Bud Johnson (Kevin Costner) is the Texico, New Mexico “voter” whose vote wasn’t counted because of a voting machine malfunction which also is much more likely to happen than one would expect especially with the Diebold voting machines. I put voter in quotes because Bud never actually tried to cast that vote; instead it was his twelve year old daughter Molly (Madeline Carroll) who attempted the ill-fated vote. This is because Bud never made it to the polls even though he promised Molly that he’d vote for the first time in his life so she could do a report on the event. Voting isn’t the only thing that Bud forgets to do, sometimes he can’t even wake up in the morning without Molly getting him out of bed in order to drive her to school. Bud is the kind of guy who tells Molly to stay away from a teacher that tells her it’s our “civic responsibility” to vote. I don’t think that Bud is alone in that kind of thinking in this country.  

Once New Mexico’s five electoral votes hang in the balance as the difference in the election, and the state is exactly tied in popular votes, it’s determined that Bud’s vote will decide who wins. Kelsey Grammar plays the current Republican President and Dennis Hopper is the Democratic opposition. Of course once each campaign discovers that Bud will decide who occupies the White House, the respective campaign managers (Stanley Tucci and Nathan Lane) go after his vote with vigor, throwing moral and values out the window. They try to find out what Bud likes and then they systematically bribe him into favoring their guy. There’s also a huge media frenzy with all of the networks gathering outside of Bud’s trailer day and night. 

The character of Bud Johnson is one that Costner simply excels at. He’s a regular guy with no pretentions that hasn’t so much as checked out of politics as much as he never checked in to begin with. His daughter knows much more than him about current and past history and is completely up to date on the issues. Costner makes Bud’s ignorance believable even as he laughs like an idiot when asked important questions. As the candidates and their campaigns kiss Bud’s ass, Swing Vote does a great job with “mock” campaign ads where the candidates do complete 180 degree turns on issues just to make Bud like them. When asked about gay marriage Bud answers that he thinks “a man can do what he wants in his own castle, even two queens.” We then see Republican President Grammar doing a commercial on how much he supports gay marriage. When Bud says that he’s “pro-life” not even realizing what he’s saying, Democratic candidate Hopper makes a commercial showing how he is now pro-life as well. The ads are over the top and hilarious, but once again not too far off from what we actually get at campaign time when you think about it.  

Swing Vote doesn’t take Bud’s character into any unpredictable direction; as the pressure begins to mount and his voting day grows closer Bud will indeed begin to wake up until finally making a speech at a debate that is both moving and sadly true. The fact that it’s predictable doesn’t make the film any less enjoyable or clever. While with the help of his daughter Bud finally realizes how important his vote is, the film seems to be saying that we as a country need to take our “civic responsibility” more serious. Those of us in a big city may call this trite but I think there are many people who are much like Bud and could use a wake up call. The film’s Capra-esque quality is to its advantage, a more cynical approach wouldn’t work with such a fanciful premise. Costner makes us actually care about Bud’s political awakening especially since his situation isn’t unlike many, having lost his job, with no health care for himself or his daughter. The relationship between Bud and Molly, whose mother left many years back, is realistic and an integral part of the film because without it Swing Vote would have nothing to ground it. I’m reminded of Costner’s Field of Dreams which placed ordinary people into an extraordinary situation and worked because of it. Swing Vote ends in a very smart way knowing that it’s not who Bud votes for that matters but that he finally, at long last, has an opinion.