Movies Swing VoteBy pure happenstance last night a few friends spun up the DVD of Swing Vote, the 2008 send-up of political campaigns, a voracious media and the out of touch voter. Not expecting much we settled in and with hardly a blink Kevin Costner had us hooked with his portrayal of Bud Johnson, the trailer-living, egg-counting, constantly failing father of bright, insistent Molly [Madeline Carroll], his only child. Alcoholism is not a pretty thing nor something to be laughed at but his slack-boned response to the bottle as his principle tool for digging through life, brings on at least a little sympathy, if not full-on empathy. A scene of too-drunk-to-drive is one of the better bits of physical comedy I’ve seen in years.

The set-up is that in a very tight presidential race, the winner depends on New Mexico’s winner-take-all five electoral votes, and they depend  on one, machine nullified, vote which, by New Mexican law, can be recast.  Bud is the voter in question, though not quite.  Irrepressible Molly, a self motivating civics student at age 12, has a hand in it.

With the entire American presidential outcome held up while the legal ballot recasting is set up, the media and the two candidates locate and descend on Bud, Molly and their trailer-home in Texico, New Mexico from the far corners of the world.  CNN, CBS, BBC, FOX trucks all make cameo appearances.  Shouting newsies are held off by the police. Kleig lights illuminate the trailer night and day.  Bud, not the sharpest tool in the shed,  gives gnomic answers to the shouted questions, each becoming the “poll” by which the candidates, Kelsey Grammer as Republican President Andrew Boone, and Dennis Hopper as liberal candidate Donald Greenleaf, a Vermont Democrat, shape and reshape their campaigns to match.  Descending on the small town with a week to go before his, deciding, vote, they throw out all the stops. Discovering that Bud is a devoted fisherman Republican Boone declares the local river, slated for development by his own administration, a National Wildlife Refuge.  A phalanx of Sierra Club supporters, at his speech to boo him, instead erupts into cheering high-fives.  When Bud answers a reporter’s loaded question with  “I’m in favor of life,” Greenleaf’s campaign manager Art Crumb [Nathan Lane] interprets him as anti-abortion and skids their campaign 180 degrees to try to win his vote.

“What about the base?” asks the candidate.

“There is no base.  There’s only him!” replies Crumb

Like much of comedy, the jokes and scenes depend on stereotyping, and like good comedy, these tickle our funny bone.  While we recognize the ruthless, unprincipled, campaign managers, and in real life don’t much like them, in movie-time we’re not threatened and enjoy their shamelessness and its exposure. We laugh at the full-press pro Gay Marriage ad put on by the Republicans, even the stereotype gays appearing in it.

There is a moment though, a good way into the film, that seems as if its lifted from another genre altogether — scary, sad child danger films. It’s well handled, not prolonged merely to shock, and provides the first strong pivot as Bud gropes his way back to the dad he, and Molly, want him to be.

Costner is just wonderful as the dad.  His cluelessness about life, his recognition and apology for his behavior, even as he sleeps-in one more morning and can’t get Molly to school, are tone perfect. His low energy mumbled conversations with her are delivered with timing of a good comic.

Even more has to be said about fifth grade Molly. Madeline Carroll was 12 years old at the time, though it’s hard to remember that when we watch her, from rousting her dad out of bed in a no nonsense, been here before, kind of way, to her adult conversations with him about politics and doing right.  She is simply  superb and never better than in a tearful front-of-the-class talk on “bring your fathers to work day,” when he has again managed to screw up his promise to her.  The quaver in her voice in front of her peers, the age-appropriate language about heavy matters, and the tears trickling down her cheeks will make you wonder how anyone could act like that, much less a young girl.  She was nominated for Best Actress in a Feature Film for the Young Artist Awards for her performance.

Willie Nelson makes a cameo appearance, as does Richard Petty the famed NASCAR driver.  Chris Matthews, Arriana Huffington, Larry King and a host of other TV personalities comment on the improbable situation.   George Lopez as the local TV station manager delivers the best line of the movie when he encourages his ace, and beautiful, reporter, Kate Madison [Paula Patton], to forget her scruples and straight dealing with interview subjects.  “Forget about the news!”  He yells.  “This is Television!”

For any political junky, even if only one during a campaign year, this is a must see movie, to go along with other classics such as Wag the Dog, Bullworth, and The American President along with, of course, Network the great 1976 news satire. More recently the very engaging 2013 Italian movie Viva La Liberta compares favorably.   Sorry I missed Swing Vote when it would have provided relief in the election season of 2008.


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