Swing Vote (Blu-ray Review)11 Jan, 2009 By: John Latchem
Box Office $16.3 million
$29.99 DVD, $34.99 Blu-ray
Rated ‘PG-13’ for language.
Stars Kevin Costner, Madeline Carroll, Dennis Hopper, Kelsey Grammer, Nathan Lane, Stanley Tucci, Paula Patton, George Lopez.
Swing Vote is a well-meaning attempt to cut through the cynicism of American political theater. It’s billed as a comedy, though it is filled with a surprising amount of drama. The well-informed might see it as a horror film, as it is fundamentally disturbing on so many levels.
The premise concerns a presidential election that has come down to a single vote. Bud (Kevin Costner), a loser living in New Mexico, promises his daughter, Molly (Madeline Carroll), that he’ll vote in the election. But when he passes out drunk and never shows up, Molly sneaks into the polling place and tries to vote for him. The next day, Bud is told his vote didn’t go through, and he is entitled to cast a new ballot. This is where the fun begins.
Bud is not allowed to vote that day, or even the next. Instead, his special election is set nearly two weeks after the real election, giving the press ample time to swarm his residence, and the two presidential candidates plenty of opportunities to sway his support.
It is in these early scenes of the renewed campaign that the film best connects with its core message, that power has so corrupted the bureaucratic soul that politicians will say or do anything to get elected. This is demonstrated by the Republican incumbent (Kelsey Grammer) and his Democrat challenger (Dennis Hopper) flip-flopping on major policy positions on a whim depending on what Bud says. Hopper’s ironic anti-abortion commercial is a highlight.
To their credit, the filmmakers avoid taking any hard political stance, faulting both parties for corrupting the system. The home video versions include a few good deleted scenes that expound on some of the political themes in the film.
Swing Vote works best when actually allowed to function as a satire. But it is rarely afforded the chance. The situation is clearly meant as a farce, as it bears little resemblance to any actual politics on our planet. But at some point it seems the filmmakers decided to make an earnest attempt at a serious film, switching from satire to realism, from farce to character study.
Never mind that this scenario makes a mockery of the concept of the secret ballot, and ignores the potential impact of inevitable recounts and absentee ballots. It also doesn’t help that the story veers way off course into a subplot involving Molly’s missing mother, which needlessly adds about a half-hour to a running time that really drags on toward the end. Director Joshua Michael Stern and writer Jason Richman defend this move in their commentary, stating this isn’t really a story about politics, but about healing the strained relationship between a father and a daughter.
Swing Vote also continues the longstanding cinema tradition of misusing the press, portraying the media as a pack of wolves barely more credible than the paparazzi. Upon this conflagration is thrust a young local reporter looking for a big scoop, who might actually be encouraged to cover-up the truth for the sake of … honestly, I don’t know.
By the end, the film takes itself way too seriously, and actually posits the notion that the Founding Fathers would be proud of this scenario (spoken through the lips of Arianna Huffington, of all people). I wonder if the filmmakers have actually read the Constitution. In its original intent, the Founders didn’t want the people to vote for much of anything, for what happens in this movie is the kind of situation that worried them the most.
Viewers sifting through the extras hoping for the filmmakers to explain themselves are bound to be disappointed. The behind-the-scenes featurette and commentary focus mostly on anecdotes about making the movie, though Stern takes every chance he can to compare himself to Frank Capra. Nice try.
Missing is any kind of serious discussion about the one-man-one-vote scenario presented in the film. Some interviews with actual scholars and pundits exploring the loopholes of our political system would have been a welcome and appropriate addition.
Then again, this film isn’t intended for the elite few who might actually study these things. This is politics simplified for the masses.
I tend to doubt any actual political advisor would thrust his candidate into the ethical quagmires presented here. Or that any individual tasked with casting a deciding vote for the presidency would actually avail himself of the honor, and thus incurring the intense wrath of the half of the country who voted for the other guy.
Yet we are left with the scary notion that the fates of 300 million people are left up to the whims of such a white-trash dumbass. Which isn’t stretching the truth too much, when you consider Bud’s vote, had it been recorded in anonymity, would have been just one of millions cast by similarly like-minded individuals. Perhaps the Founders had a point.