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,
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 contented-looking Tom DeLay. Third, set
your neck to “swivel” and watch a roomful of lobbyists,
journalists, Beltway careerists, and politicians react as
lobotomizes their life’s work.
Swing Vote is 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 so she can do a school project on the process; 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, sneaks past poll workers, 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), 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. Bud has no idea who’s 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-gonecorporate role he played in George Romero’s 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 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 and 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 this year’s omnipresent AARP ads (tell Obama and McCain to spend more on you!) is coincidental.
For the filmmakers, it’s not Bud’s fault he’s so lazy and
stupid. It’s not even the politicians' 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, foulmouthed Nathan Lane. I’ll spoil the surprise: Neither 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-dowell 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 characters 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 these
machinations 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.”
Boone and Greenleaf, by contrast, 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 acid 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 oneliners 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 had focus groups to work with.
David Weigel (email@example.com) is an associate editor of reason.