Idiocracy Now!

How the movie Swing Vote makes America worse

If you can see Swing Vote the way I saw it, do so. First, score a free ticket from a D.C. activist group (in my case, Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform). Second, get a seat next to an assistant secretary of education for the Bush administration and five rows in front of a disturbingly content-looking Tom DeLay. Third, set your neck to “swivel” and watch a roomful of lobbyists, journalists, beltway careerists, and politicians react as Hollywood lobotomizes their life’s work.

Of course, you’re not going to be able to do that. When Swing Vote opens on Friday it will be the latest lame entry in the oeuvre of low-denominator political pop. It's not quite as lousy as the 2003 Chris Rock vehicle Head of State (a dizzying fantasia about an inexperienced black Democrat who beats a blundering white Republican) or the 2006 Robin Williams landfill-expander Man of the Year. There's at least one idea present in Swing Vote. Too bad the filmmakers don’t seem to realize it.

On election day, shiftless, alcoholic New Mexico egg farmer Bud Johnson (Kevin Costner) is rousted out of bed by his daughter Molly, played by Madeline Carroll with precociousness on loan from Roald Dahl. She wants him to cast his vote for a school project; he wants to avoid the jury duty rolls. “Voting doesn’t count for a goddamn thing!” shouts Bud as he drops Molly off and speeds off, late, for work. He loses his job, gets drunk, and—this really happens—hits his head on a wooden “Vote Today” sign, which knocks him out cold. Plucky Molly, rubbing away tears as she sits by the polling station, forges his signature, Harriet-the-Spys her way past election judges, and casts her father’s vote just as the power goes out. Because the election is a tie, and because New Mexico’s election security is handled by Robert Mugabe (I’m assuming, here), the state tracks Bud down and tells him to cast a new vote in 10 days.

What follows is a blistering critique of that idiot of the American landscape: the undecided voter. Everything Bryan Caplan has to say about the ignorant voter is embodied in Bud. He has no idea who’s actually running. He’s completely won over by bribes and flashy displays of power. When Richard Petty lets Bud drive his car to the landing strip housing Air Force One, Bud resolves to vote for President Andrew Boone (Kelsey Grammar, channeling Gerald Ford). Willie Nelson switches Bud back when he tells him to vote for acid-washed Democrat Donald Greenleaf (Dennis Hopper, reprising the hippie-gone-corporate role he played in Land of the Dead). Most of Bud’s sentences end in an awkward laugh or a mumble; when he has to talk about a political issue, he repeats the last thing he’s been told, which leads (in an interview with Mary Hart!) to worrying about “insourcing” and “Mexicans taking our jobs.”

If this was the point of the movie, we’d at least have something to like, even though The Onion did it all better a year ago—and in less than three minutes. But it isn’t the point of the movie. Bud, we slowly learn, is an everyman who lost his way. As the country, then the town, grow tired of his instant celebrity, he schedules a debate with the candidates and prefaces it with a teary, rambling confession of his sins as a citizen. “I’ve taken freely and given nothing back,” Bud says, his voice breaking. “I’ve never served or sacrificed.” All that he’s ever been told to do is “pay attention and vote.” The only hope for people like him is that the candidates become “bigger than speeches”—as if one of them can become a “superman.” Any resemblance to those round-the-clock AARP ads, or to a Gene Healy nightmare, is pure coincidence.

It’s not Bud’s fault he’s so lazy and stupid. It’s not even the politicians’s fault that they’ve become such pandering nincompoops. The villains are the political advisers, a Republican played by a skin-headed Stanley Tucci and a Democrat played by a rumpled, foul-mouthed Nathan Lane. I’ll spoil the surprise: Neither one of them has a soul. On election day, Tucci’s Martin Fox commands young Republicans to scare “old Jews” from the polls and Lane’s Art Crumb (based on ne’er-do-well Democrat Bob Shrum, down to a reporter’s crack that he’s lost seven elections) baselessly accuses the president of a gambling addiction.

Tucci and Lane are responsible for the best comedy here. Both are aware that the new stakes of the election are to win over one deeply stupid man. Thus whatever he claims to believe becomes grist for a new election ad or a national park declaration (Bud wants to keep fishing in the Pecos River). The faux ads are cartoonish and cleverly staged, especially one where Hopper walks past a wave of “undocumented actors” running across the desert, promising to seal it shut as Border Patrol vans hurtle past him. (Tom DeLay laughed a little too hard at this.)

But since they’re the villains, Fox and Crumb set this up with a surplus of grimaces and Dr. Evil speechmaking. “I don’t know what we stand for anymore,” whines President Boone in a pensive Air Force One moment. “Winning,” says Fox. “If we don’t win, we can’t do the great things we want to do.”

It’s yet another simplistic flaw in the film. Boone and Greenleaf believe in nothing but the artifice of power, which makes them seem dopey and harmless. When Bud gets his courage up at the debate, he demands that they stop leaving him alone and start meddling with his life already. “If this is the wealthiest country on earth,” he asks, “why is it so hard to live here?” The candidates gaze at him as if he's just handed them a sequel to the Federalist Papers.

I don’t know if a more acidic screenwriter could have saved Swing Vote. The plot veers completely apart from the political themes. A running hint that Molly’s illegal vote will be exposed comes to nothing. A local news producer played by George Lopez gets way too much screen time to deliver simplistic riffs about the media (“Check your conscience at the door! This is TV!”) and one-liners as brutal as “I’m so excited I got my accent back!” Unable to decide whether they were making a Billy Wilder farce or a saccharine message movie, the filmmakers are as tortured and ultimately as irritating as Bud himself. In his defense, they got more focus groups to work with.

David Weigel is an associate editor of reason.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Guy Montag||

    Hollywood will be the death of the Republic.

  • Naga Sadow||

    Not Darth Sidious?

  • Guy Montag||

    OT: Did I miss the post about Sen. Obama and his money quote?

    Really not sure what he is talking about. If the man borrowed Michelle's hair he could place high in an Andy Jackson look-alike contest.

  • First Little Pig||

    Did the funeral scene in the Old Church make it? I worked on that scene for days on end.

    Dennis Hopper is a very nice guy.

  • ||

    It's not quite as lousy as the 2003 Chris Rock vehicle Head of State (a dizzying fantasia about an inexperienced black Democrat who beats a blundering white Republican)

    Yeah, no chance a scenario like that would happen ...

  • NotThatDavid||

    Kevin Costner made a shitty movie? I'm shocked. Shocked.

  • ||

    Here's a funny political film from the 7th decade of the 20th century: The First Family, with Bob Newhart as the Pres, writtten by Buck Henry.

    Kevin

  • ||

    Wasn't this an episode of the Simpsons?

  • ||

    I already had this movie pegged as sheer stupidity, but I was wondering what bizzare and impossible legal scenario justified the movie's "the election comes down to one man" premise. The best I could come up with was that he somehow became a member of the Electoral College, which was tied.

    From the looks of it they scrap even the faintest attempt to make it seem plausible, though.

  • Naga Sadow||

    More important question: Will this make up for Costner in "Tin Cup"?

  • Elemenope||

    I guess I understand the hate against "Man of the Year", but I thought it was fairly decent within each individual storyline; there were just too many of them and they didn't hang together well.

    I have no desire whatsoever to see "Swing Vote".

  • Episiarch||

    More important question: Will this make up for Costner in "Tin Cup"?

    I got a hummer in the theater at the beginning of Tin Cup, so I can never truly hate it. Wait, yes I can.

  • Naga Sadow||

    Episiarch,

    I have much to learn from you . . .

  • robc||

    The best I could come up with was that he somehow became a member of the Electoral College, which was tied.

    Ditto. This is stupid. But that said, did the movien even consider the possibility of him thowing a complete monkey wrench into the system by voting 3rd party. If that situation occurred in real life [although I can think of no scenario in which KY would be tied and Obama didnt complete trounce McCain everywhere else], I would be voting for Barr as fast as I could. Then pointing and laughing. Of course, Im voting for Barr anyway, but you get the idea.

  • ||

    LOL, I dont know how much worse it could possible get! I mean think about it, the sooner we gt Dictator Bush out of office the better off we will be.

    JT
    www.Ultimate-Anonymity.com

  • Guy Montag||

    The First Family, with Bob Newhart as the Pres, writtten by Buck Henry.

    Wasn't Gilda Radner the nympho daughter in that one?

  • Observationalist||

    Tom Delay?

  • Paul||

    The candidates gaze at him as if he's just handed them a sequel to the Federalist Papers.

    David, this line is gold. Well played, sir, well played.

  • Paul||

    Hollywood will be the death of the Republic.

    Hollywood is the republic.

  • aint it cold||

    Spoiler warning:

    At the end of the film, Costner casts his vote for Bob Barr.

  • cbpooh||

    When I heard the premise of the movie, more poor children had to be subjected to a 10 minute rant on how it butchered the Constitution and the crucial ideal of voter confidentiality. The sad, horrible truth is that there will be people who will think this could actually happen.

  • Lloyd B.||

    Looks like I chose the wrong week to stop watching crappy movies.

  • Andy||

    Yeah, the concept of one guy deciding a tie in a national election is dumb. But so is a billionaire dressing up in a batsuit and fighting crime. It's about the execution.

    I heard there were at least some quirky campaign ads where the candidates both flip positions (the Republican being friendly to gay couples, and the Democrat watching sadly as kids on a playground go up in little mushroom clouds to represent abortion). That sounds kind of funny at least.

  • Orange Line Special||

    In line with the Hopper ad, here's the movie Weigel should review. In fact, one of the entities they constantly in effect help financed part of it.

    I think Weigel has finally found his niche.

    --
    Still proud of "AStrangerAmongUs" being the last time I donated money to Hollywood.

  • ||

    lonewacko, seriously, monomania is treatable.

  • Syd||

    Andy Craig | August 1, 2008, 3:18pm | #
    I already had this movie pegged as sheer stupidity, but I was wondering what bizzare and impossible legal scenario justified the movie's "the election comes down to one man" premise. The best I could come up with was that he somehow became a member of the Electoral College, which was tied.


    I suppose the vote in the deciding state was a tie. Like if New Hampshire had been a tie in 2000. Although I suppose if that happened, the state legislature would have decided it.

  • ||

    This comes off like a poor man's Frank Capra, and since I've always considered Capra the biggest fraud in the history of filmdom, I'll pass on this one. The only way such a craptacular flick could have a satisfying ending would be if Molly (the officious little shit) were to fall down a well.

  • Johnny Nowhere||

    Lloyd B.,

    try amphetamines or sniffing glue

  • Sean W. Malone||

    the sooner we gt (sic) Dictator Bush out of office the better off we will be.

    Sooo... does anyone else see the irony in being able to just elect a "dictator" out of office? Or is that too serious a comment for a thread about this retarded movie - which, btw - will tank instantly. Hooray Costner!

  • ||

    Best presidential movie ever: My Fellow Americans

    Worst presidential movie ever: Dave

    (barely beats Dreamscape, whose only saving grace is the scene where the president beats up a snake-human hybrid with a tire iron. If McCain had done that, I would definitely vote for him.

  • ||

    Costner is terrible and his movies are box office poison full stop

  • ||

    I haven't seen the movie, but based on the trailer and this review, I don't think it's for us. It's audience is the same type of guy as the main character; someone who doesn't know the system and doesn't stay too informed. Basically, the average voter. I guess this is supposed to be a guilt trip into getting them to vote.

  • ||

    Another movie to dumb down the American population. Not enough Americans are smart enough to realize P(your vote swinging an election) < P(Tornado tearing through Kansas assembles a Boeing 747).

  • ed||

    Costner is terrible and his movies are box office poison

    Fortunately only retards, critics and Hollywood itself takes movies seriously.

  • Taktix®||

    I'm surprised this movie wasn't better.*

    Costner is at his best when he plays a drunken, washed-up moron (Bull Durham, Tin Cup).



    *Ok, I'm not surprised, but that's the best premise for my joke I could think of...

  • will||

    If the vote in a state was actually tied and it made the election inconclusive, I think it goes to the house of representatives.

  • James ||

    Molly is very smart she's not an officious little shit she's the only good thing abt the film

  • Nike Dunks SB||

    GOOD

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