Swing Vote is the kind of movie that Hollywood used to pump out by the truckload. Directors like Frank Capra and Preston Sturges had a corner on patriotism, cranking out movies about ordinary men and women who made a difference. While the politically patriotic film saw its heyday in the 1940s with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and State of the Union only to be almost completely wiped out by post Watergate cynicism, this new film starring Kevin Costner as a regular man who holds the outcome of a Presidential election in his hands hopes to resurrect the genre.
Coster is single father Bud, a New Mexico egg factory worker who spends as much time drinking and hanging out with his friends as he does sorting eggs. His daughter, a precocious twelve-year-old named Molly (Madeline Carroll), is the true adult in their relationship, but in one impulsive moment she sets off a chain of events that conclude with Bud’s uncounted vote becoming the swing vote that will decide who becomes the next President of the United States. When both the Republican incumbant (Kelsey Grammer) and Democratic hopeful (Dennis Hopper) come to his small town of Texico, New Mexico to court his vote Bud and Molly learn hard lessons about how politics and the media really work. In the end, however, Bud learns the much more fundamental lesson that every vote counts.
Although Swing Vote’s story is as corny as anything Frank Capra ever committed to film its earnest message is relevant as the November McCain / Obama showdown looms and voter apathy is causing Democrats and others to have heart palpitations. As presented, the every vote matters mantra is heavy handed and a little bit old hat—but not untrue, just ask Al Gore—but Costner grounds the movie with a comic performance that keeps the light and airy story from floating off into the ether.
Costner isn’t known for his comedic skills. Bull Durham and Tin Cup aside, he has rarely used his light touch in such an obvious way. In his hands Bud is just this side of being a drunken good old boy caricature. He does pratfalls, bangs his head on low hanging signs and wears a perpetual goofy grin most commonly seen in the stands of Nascar races. His gradual realization that there is more to life than booze and good times seems a bit sudden, but Costner somehow manages to pull it off and even delivers the inevitable “I don’t understand much, but I know my country” speech with panache.
Unfortunately despite Costner’s charm the movie doesn’t quite work. Kelsey Grammer has a nice turn as the dim bulb President, and Dennis Hopper and Nathan Lane do their usual journeyman work but director Joshua Michael Stern has a hard time balancing all the disparate aspects of the story. As a co-writer he’s even handed in his treatment of the Republicans and Democrats—both sides are treated fairly and equitably—but the style of the film fluctuates wildly from jarring music video editing to laid-back Hal Ashby style rural landscapes to Paper Moon hi-jinks. If he had committed to one cinematic texture Swing Vote would be a better film.
I’m not sure if Canadian audiences will care about Swing Vote and its take on jingoistic American politics, but its heartfelt “rock the vote” message is a good one no matter where you live.