By JANE WILSON, Special To The Bulletin | Published August 7, 2008
Politics and family values may not seem like they belong together, but it’s a combination that works in Disney’s new offering, “Swing Vote.”
Directed by Joshua Michael Stern, “Swing Vote” is the story of Bud Johnson, a down-on-his-luck single father. Through a series of unlikely events, the United States presidential election comes down to a single vote—Bud’s. With a waiting period of 10 days before he casts his ballot, the film shows how the political and media circus descends on the little town of Texico, N.M., and disrupts Bud’s life, the normal lethargy of the town, and, most significantly, Bud’s relationship with his fifth-grade daughter, Molly.
With the inspiration of the 2000 presidential election that came down to a handful of votes, the film is especially timely as another historic election approaches. However, while “Swing Vote” makes some stinging points about the invasiveness of the media and the pandering quality of the political process, the core of the movie is the relationship between father and daughter. Bud does not come close to being a perfect parent—he is irresponsible, often lazy, and sometimes not too smart. In spite of his faults, however, a genuine affection between Molly and her father shines throughout the film. He disappoints her so badly only because she loves him so much. Even at his most irresponsible, it is clear that he only wants the best for his daughter, and it breaks even his heart that he cannot be a better father for her.
Kevin Costner and Madeline Carroll make a believable and sympathetic father-daughter duo. Bud Johnson is the perfect role for Costner, and he approaches it with a hang-dog charm, making Bud the kind of guy one would like in spite of one’s self. At a recent press conference in Atlanta, Costner characterized Bud as “not a PTA dad or a soccer father,” but as representative of a lot of people in America who are “on the fringe,” and notes that he had to work “not to make myself more likeable.”
Even though the film consistently presents the negative sides of Bud’s behavior, it grounds that behavior in circumstances that the audience can understand. Eventually Bud becomes accountable for his actions. According to Costner, Bud can swear violently, but the audience does not mind because “at the end of the day, it comes back to his daughter,” who is the one who has to explain to him why some people might object to the things he says or the way he behaves.
Carroll is adorable as young Molly. She is easily the sharpest character on the screen, even when facing down the men who would be the leader of the free world, and she shows a tender heart and sense of justice as she begins to take on responsibility for all the people who appeal to Bud and his vote. The precocious young actress shares her character’s interest in helping people, and she believes that “young people need to pay attention” to the political process.
Together Costner and Carroll make a fine team, and the relationship between them is easygoing and natural. When Bud disappoints his daughter, viewers can see her heartbreak; likewise, when he finally begins to take his responsibilities seriously, one almost feels her heart swell with pride and relief.
The events of the film are precipitated by a political campaign, and much of the action revolves around what happens when a normal guy finds himself at the center of a political and media frenzy. The film takes some pointed shots at the media as the Johnsons suddenly find themselves trapped inside their trailer, surrounded by bleachers full of newsmen and women, each wanting the interview with Bud. A side story about a local reporter who befriends Molly seems tacked on to the main story, though it does teach an obvious moral lesson about the temptation. Although she claims she has “integrity – like Paula Zahn,” Kate Madison eventually attempts to betray the young girl’s trust to get an exclusive story and must be redeemed.
Some of the funniest moments of the film come from the movie’s political observations. “Swing Vote” is remarkably even handed on the subject of politics, favoring neither a Democratic nor a Republican agenda. While it addresses many of the issues faced by Americans in 2008, it does so in a way that shows the fallibility of both parties. As the candidates narrow their campaigns to focus on one constituent, the film demonstrates how far they would be willing to compromise their beliefs in order to win the election. Although this portion of the film goes on too long, it does provide some laugh-out-loud moments, especially as the candidates present television ads aimed directly at what they think Bud wants to hear.
On the Republican side, Kelsey Grammer plays the incumbent president, and Stanley Tucci is his faithful campaign manager, while Dennis Hopper is on the ticket for the Democrats, with Nathan Lane as his manager. Each of these men fills out his role with a polished professionalism. While Tucci and Lane take on the more ruthless aspects of campaigning, both Grammar and Hopper show the candidates to be good, thoughtful, ambitious men who, in the end, genuinely want to do their best for the country despite their willingness to compromise themselves.
The film is not essentially about politics, though, and never drifts into a political statement about a particular party; instead it addresses how all government and politicians can sometimes ignore the situation of the common constituent. Although Bud at first is flattered by the attention paid to him, he eventually comes to realize that the situation is serious and that his decision will affect millions and millions of people. He realizes, too, that he is uniquely unqualified to make this decision.
The big moment occurs for Bud when he realizes that he is regarded as a joke by much of the world, and it is heartwarming to see him pull himself together to try to do the best he can. At the end of the film, he addresses the candidates, the media and the rest of the voting public and calls attention to this situation. It is the moment, Costner claimed, that Bud “really had to look at himself and had to uniquely speak for us all.” The speech he gives is genuinely touching, and especially relevant as Election Day 2008 approaches.
“Swing Vote” paints a touching family story against the backdrop of a political circus. The film is funny and entertaining, and it has its heart in the right place as it demonstrates how one person’s hopes and dreams and disappointments, even on a small scale, can affect other people in most surprising ways.
Jane Wilson, a local writer and movie enthusiast, holds a doctorate in English from the University of Georgia. She is a parishioner at St. Pius X Church, Conyers.