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Swing Vote a Mostly Toothless Political Satire

Swing Vote
Directed by Joshua Michael Stern
Written by Stern and Jason Richman
Disney, 2008

Before the summer I saw some mock political ads for this movie (which remain intact here) that showed politicians taking part in the most outrageous messages: the Republican incumbent President Andrew Boone (Kelsey Grammer) promising gay marriage and the Democratic hopeful Donald Greenleaf (Dennis Hopper) in an anti-illegal-alien border-crossing ad and a pro-life spot where kids on a playground disappear in a poof of smoke.  The potential for a truly great satire was in the making, but of course Disney, and I do blame Disney here, can’t take a real stance on anything and it’s mostly what you would expect from the empire.

Bud Johnson (Kevin Costner) is a bit of a drunk who has lost his job at an egg factory.  His sharp, cute, smart daughter Molly (Madeline Carroll) is the one who takes care of the both of them.  She registers her dad to vote, but he’s not interested in the process at all.  He doesn’t have any political affiliation or any real opinions.  No shock on election day he gets drunk and doesn’t show up, forcing Molly to go try to vote for him.  After sneaking in on a sleeping election official, she enters the voting booth but the power is accidentally knocked out when she enters the ballot.  And wouldn’t you know it, it’s the closest election in history, neither candidate has the required 270 electoral votes, and it all comes down to New Mexico, specifically Texico, New Mexico, and 5 electoral votes on the line, all riding on the vote that wasn’t cast.

Reporter Kate Madison (Deja Vu hottie Paula Patton) gets lucky and figures out that the missing vote belongs to Bud, and the media circus begins.  Both sides have their heartless Karl Rove figure: with the President it’s Martin Fox (Stanely Tucci), who has never lost an election and with the Dem it’s Art Crumb (Nathan Lane) who has never won.  They want to wine and dine Bud’s vote, much to the chagrin of his daughter, who is wise to their tactics.  Thus, once Bud says something that’s taken out of context, the aforementioned political ads start showing up, spouting messages that neither candidate ever intended.  Bud is the same ol’ Bud, however, and Molly, who reads letters from across the country from people who believe Bud is their savior and really cares, begins to feel bad about what she did.

Of course, Bud eventually begins to turn around, in that quick Disney fashion where a character who showed no particular traits throughout the entire movie suddenly finds those traits.  There are good political satires out there, notably Alexander Payne’s Election and Citizen Ruth that skewer both sides of a political argument and the viewer is rewarded with rich humor and heady ironies.  Even a movie like The American President, which is decidedly left-wing, at least takes a stance and firmly puts it out there, and even if you disagree it’s at least nice to know someone isn’t saying the boring, “Both sides have positives and negatives, blah blah blah.” 

Swing Vote is the ultimate everybody’s right, everybody’s wrong movie and you’d be hard-pressed to find an actual opinion, even from our moral compass, Molly, who despite all her smarts and speeches doesn’t have an opinion on who should be the President.  In the film’s finale, when Bud leads a debate between the two candidates and makes this heartfelt speech about, “We need more than your speeches,” and President Boone volunteers to answer first, the camera pans up to space as Boone’s voice is faded out.  The message: It doesn’t matter what he says, or at the very least, we couldn’t figure anything out for him to say.  With the movie’s lack of politics, is it any surprise how this movie ultimately ends?

It’s a shame because after the mock ads, you know there are some wicked people behind the camera who probably have a flesh-and-blood opinion about something…and they could have taken this into a fantastic direction.  As is, it’s a pointless exercise.

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