This is a re-posting of a review I first offered four years ago, feeling chagrined in the midst of the election cycle. The election cycle here in these United States is re-rearing its ugly head, of course, for another interminable slog into November and I’ve been feeling chagrined all over again.
When I was younger, much younger, I was enraptured by politics. I voraciously read biographies of Washington and Jefferson and Madison. I probably knew more about the nuts and bolts of the Continental Congress than anyone my age had any right to. I engendered verbal arguments with Mr. Calvert, my history teacher in high school, who would always open class with discussions of current events, and I happened to take his class at the same time Clinton was attempting to oust the First Bush. Mr. Calvert was a conservative and I was a liberal and I was all in on Bill. (To this day I still think 1992 is the most excited I’ve ever been for an election, and I couldn’t even vote!) Granted, I was a liberal mostly because I grew up in an exclusively liberal household and only knew the basic generalities of what I was talking about, but the point remains......I had a passion for politics. That passion, however, has long since festered.
We’re all friends here, right? I can admit something to you, can’t I? I can? Good. Here it is: I didn’t vote in the infamous 2000 election. I would have voted for Gore if I had, but I found the whole process, the whole campaign, the whole election, the divisiveness of it and of the nation, so nauseating and depressing that I simply couldn’t take it. I lost all interest. I genuinely stopped caring. In the wake of what that election wrought I felt profoundly guilty, and not voting (even if Gore did carry my state) remains one of my greatest regrets, and I have never missed the voting booth since, though my trips there still too often feel born more of civic duty than fervent optimism.
“Swing Vote” is a decidedly necessarily absurd story about a New Mexican yokel named Bud – played by Kevin Costner in such a way to suggest what Gardner Barnes might very well have become long after the “Fandango” credits rolled – whose 12 year old daughter Molly (Madeline Carroll), dismayed by her father’s routine drunkenness and failure to vote in the day’s Presidential election, attempts to cast her father’s vote for him only to have it go electronically awry. As it happens and as it must, the election is a dead heat. And that dead heat all comes down to New Mexico’s electoral votes. And New Mexico’s electoral votes hinge entirely on that single vote that went awry. In other words, Bud will decide the nation’s President.
The national media and, in turn, chaos descend upon Bud and Milly’s trailer, and both candidates, incumbent Boone (Kelsey Grammar) and challenger Greenleaf (Dennis Hopper), arrive to court his vote. Their campaign managers, played by Stanley Tucci and Nathan Lane, have, respectively, never lost and never won, thus they will do whatever it takes to make their boss’s do whatever it takes to earn that vote. So we find Boone, the conservative, winning the hearts of the EPA and Greenleaf, the liberal, threatening to clamp down on the Mexican border, though the film remains notably even-handed, never tipping into conservative screed or liberal fantasy. The Presidents are revealed as generally good guys, having been led astray by their hyper-controlling managers. Bud is at first amused by the process before taking the slope downward to a pit of nicey-nice depression at the tail end of the second act when America and the town turn on him so he can rise back up to recite the obligatory speech to the Presidents as the music swells, ditching his political apathy for patriotism.
It’s all handled well enough, maybe even a little better than you think, with often predictable humor that still can induce chuckles simply on account of its goodwill, and Costner (and Costner’s amused giggle) are surprisingly solid. But even if Bud is the principal character, I really saw “Swing Vote” through the eyes of young Molly.
She opens the film full of ideals. She embraces the right to vote, so much more because she still does not have this right herself, and she is sad that her father does not merely refuse to embrace it in the same way but that he does not embrace it at all. And as the film’s story grows larger and larger, as she meets the President and TV reporters and others, as she sees the Political Machine for what it really is, a place where ideals go to die and victory overrides principals, her passion for the process threatens to wane.
Her father, I think, senses this too and goes to bat. Costner, smartly, never plays the part all that differently, he just slightly adjusts his attitude. Sometimes that’s all it takes. And his daughter’s ideals in the end are able to remain intact. Hopefully they stay that way, though I have my doubts.