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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Movie Review: Swing Vote

Rating: PG-13 (Parents Strongly Cautioned) (Language.)
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
Release Date: August 1, 2008
Run Time: 120 minutes

Summary from

November, 2004, New Mexico. Bud is a slacker with one good thing in his life, his engaging fifth-grade daughter Molly. On election day, Bud is supposed to meet her at the polling place. When he doesn't show, she sneaks a ballot and is about to vote when the power goes off. It turns out that New Mexico's electoral votes will decide the contest, and there it's tied with one vote needing recasting - Bud's. The world's media and both presidential candidates, including the current President, descend on Bud in anticipation of his re-vote in two weeks. Can the clueless Bud, even with the help of Molly and a local TV reporter, handle this responsibility? Written by {}

On the surface, Swing Vote appears to be a political comedy. And while the filmmakers tried to stay in the middle, and take shots at both sides, in the end this is a movie that isn't really about politics. It is a movie about American apathy, taking what you have for granted, and the relationship between a father and daughter.

The film begins by introducing us to Bud Johnson and his daughter Molly. They live in Texaco, New Mexico. Molly is an intelligent grade-school aged student, that is very into the political process. Bud is an apathetic, borderline drunk, that works at an egg packaging facility and isn't very good at his job.

Molly's political awareness is displayed in a well written essay related to the political process. She is also to accompany her father to the polls the evening of the presidential election for a school project. Her father loses his job that same day (the egg packaging plant is importing Mexican workers to save costs), and ends up passed out drunk in his truck despite his intentions not to disappoint his daughter.

Molly, flustered at her father's failing to show up to vote, sneaks into the polling place, gets his ballot while the poll worker sleeps, and inserts it into the electronic voting machine. When a custodian kicks the power plug out of the wall, Molly tears the ballot tab off and leaves.

Later that night it is determined that New Mexico's election is tied. New Mexico's electoral votes are also necessary to decide who the next president will be. Either the incumbent Republican up for reelection, or the Democratic challenger. The feds show up at Bud's trailer to inform him that his ballot was never counted, and that he will have to cast the deciding vote to determine who will be president. He has a few days to recast his vote.

This kicks off a media firestorm. The press sets up en masse outside of of Bud's trailer. Both campaigns begin courting Bud. Those that have a stake in the election from both sides of the aisle begin to send Bud promotional items. (My favorite is a chocolate Uzi sent by a pro-2nd amendment group!) Every one wants Bud to vote their way.

The campaigns begin to switch positions based on what Bud decides. When it becomes apparent he is an avid fisherman, both candidates start pushing initiatives to save fishing grounds. When Bud says he has no problem with gay marriage, the Republican president runs a pro-gay campaign ad. When Bud says he is pro-life, the Democratic candidate runs an ad claiming he is anti-abortion.

The culmination is a presidential debate, moderated by Bud, the night before he is to cast his vote. Molly came up with the idea, which Bud originally hated. When Bud realizes how important this is to Molly, the night before the debate, he finally sets aside his apathy and gets engrossed in the issues. This endears Bud to Molly as she sees him becoming the father she always thought he could be.

Here is the prepared statement Bud reads prior to the debate. It is profound in many of its points. It is off base some of the others. When I decided to blog about this movie I decided I would quote this part verbatim. Here is the transcript:
Mr. President, Mr. Greenleaf...

I'd like to thank you for your hospitality. It's been real interesting. I've said a lot of things I didn't mean and you both made a lot of promises you probably won't be able to keep. To be honest, the last 10 days have felt like a weird dream. What was once kinda funny, isn't anymore. From what I've read, I've well, I've scared the hell out of America.

I know that the world is watching, maybe even laughing. People on my own TV, are saying that America, somehow, deserves this moment. Guess that means me. I can't say that I've been much of anything most of my life. It's sorta like somewhere along the way I checked out and it's not like I had big dreams to begin with. But I had something once. I had something close to faith or hope or whatever, whatever word you want to use for how good life could be.

But then, the years start moving quicker and all of a sudden what's going good out there for every else isn't going so good for you. But, tonight I feel embarrassed. I've had my chances, more than most. I've grown up in a country where if I decided to do more with my life than just drift and drink that I could be standing where where maybe you stand tonight. Instead, I've taken freely and I've given nothing.

I'm ashamed in front of my daughter. And my country. I've never served or sacrificed. The only heavy lifting I've been asked is simple stuff, like
pay attention. Vote. For America has a, if America has a true enemy tonight, I guess it's me. Tonight a below average man is going to choose between two exceptional men. Tomorrow, one man's vote is going to make a difference. 'Cause tomorrow we're gonna have a President.

And not just someone to fill a chair in Washington. We need someone who's bigger than their speeches. The kind of President we learned about in school. America needs a big thinker. You know, like a giant, really. Someone who has the good sense to get in front of our problems. Somebody who has the wisdom to lead to us a place where we're at peace with ourselves and the world.

And just for the record, I want you both, I want you both to know that I think a hella lot of you.

Tonight, I am going to speak for people I have never met whose letters touched me in a way I didn't think was possible.

My first question comes from Peter Manthis, in Henderson, Kentucky.

"Dear Mr. Johnson

My wife and I have three little girls. We both work two jobs just trying to make ends meet. And some weeks, we don't make it.

When you work hard and you still can't take care of your family you start to question yourself as a provider, as a man. I know I am one. I fought
for my country and I'm proud of it. But it scares me to think about what would happen if one of my kids got sick. Can you ask the candidates, if we are richest country in the world how come some many of us can barely afford to live here?"
That Bud recognizes that his lot in life is his own doing is a profound thing. In the end, in this the greatest nation on God's green earth, we can be anything we want to be. If you are stuck in a dead end job, with no prospects for another, better paying job then you have no one to blame but yourself. Sure some people are born with more obstacles than others, but in the end when the going gets tough the tough bet going.

When Bud read: "(America needs) Somebody who has the wisdom to lead to us a place where we're at peace with ourselves and the world." I immediately thought of Jesus Christ. What America really needs is to turn back to Christianity. Of course, we can't expect a Hollywood film to make that point. Regardless, if America is looking for that kind of thing in a president they are looking in the wrong place, like Israel did with a king.

The real point of the film is to point out how apathy undermines the political process. While Bud is on a journey of self discovery, Molly wants him to discover that the American political process has implications for him. As Bud continues his slacker lifestyle, Molly is trying to get him to understand that he has a say in not only his life, but the political realm that affects that life.

What the movie turns into is a film about a bad father, as well as an uninformed American, becoming a good father, and becoming an informed American. The movie has a very sweet quality because of this juxtaposition of Bud's fatherhood and political acumen. It is also very sweet to see him realize how important Molly is to him, and that the things that are important to Molly are also important.

So in the end, the film turns out to be less about politics and more about elections, and the Americans involved in them.

I should qualify all that by saying that the movie does get a few political shots in. Within the first few minutes the movie takes swipes at conservatives and Fox News. Later on in the movie forwards the false premise that environmental concerns and corporate concerns are mutually exclusive. They even go so far as to imply that one can be pro-life and not dislike abortion. (This is done very subtly but it is implied none the less.) So there are a few partisan shots taken, mostly at the right.

But where the film is most political is in the shots it takes at the American political campaign process. Both campaign managers are painted as "win at all costs" and loyal to no one. If Bud says he is opposed to baby seals, then they are willing run ads showing baby seals being killed. If Bud says trees are evil, then they would be willing to run ads showing deforestation as a good thing. While some of that may be true, I believe that generally even campaign managers have some principles.

Overall, the film does a good job in forwarding the message that politics is a rough business. That candidates will do and say a lot of things just to get elected. That as voters we need to cut through the noise and get at the heart of the issues.

Where the movie kind of fell down to me was in the fact that it seemed to have an underlying current that what side of an issue you take doesn't matter. As long as you take a side. Of course, there is a right side to every issue, and a wrong side. If we never strive to find the right and wrong then we will continue to, through partisanship, bash our heads against the proverbial political wall. When we turn internally to determine right and wrong, we leave out the one, true external, objective standard for right and wrong.

The movie made only two allusions to that objective standard. When Bud, in his statement prior to the debate, said: "I had something close to faith or hope or whatever, whatever word you want to use for how good life could be." And then another scene, when Bud used the Lord's name in vain, Molly rightfully corrects him by saying: "And you have to stop using 'Jesus' as a cussword all the time. He's a billion people's Saviour. "

The movie closes with Bud closing the curtain of the voting booth to cast his deciding vote. Molly looks on proudly as her father is finally taking his civic duty seriously. If only Bud, and the movie in general, could have used this unique storyline to further a message of what is most important. Unfortunately this movie almost completely ignored the most important part of being human: spirituality.

1 comment:

Roy said...

I just saw Swing Vote on TV. Thanks for your review and for writing Bud's speech (I found your page from Google with a few words from the speech). I was kind of moved by the speech, and what I consider to be quality acting by Costner there.

I likely don't share a lot of political views with you from the briefly looking at your blog, but I truly appreciate much of this review's insight (and detail.

Along with the political process, Swing Vote points out media flaws (local news, too). I wish they were just a tad less gentle with pointing out the flaws in the political process and the media, but it might have taken the focus away from Bud's believably gradual shift to becoming a better person.

Overall, I enjoyed the movie, and am a little surprised I never heard of it. I thought the acting was really good by Costner, his daughter, lost ex-wife, and Jed.