Kevin Costner surprises audiences, playing strong men whose lives are almost spent (Bull Durham, Open Range), yet renewed by one final, redeeming act. With one deciding vote, Costner now shows an equally expert performance of the under-whelmed, apathetic Bud in Swing Vote. With a divided country and a photo finish election, his ballet decides who will be the next leader of our country. Given more opportunities than most, he concedes, Bud has done little with them; a condition he now regrets. The gravity of picking the next president eludes Bud, but not his daughter Molly (played movingly by Madeline Carroll). Molly drags her father through the necessary guilt hoops, connecting him to what is important.
The first ninety minutes involves the viewer in an above average comedy, full of Bud’s inept, pathetic habits. But the crowning achievement of Swing Vote is that is skewers politicians, political double-mindedness, and sound-bite happy journalists. Even the newswoman who is most admired requires repentance (Paula Patton). Laugh-out-loud scenes suggest Democrats and Republicans are both in need of “heart” surgery. The satirical outrages of campaign commercials which are in opposition to party platforms to win one vote seem eerily accurate. Outside of the CNN, MSNBC overplay, with some not so innocent placard placements, the true nature of comedy is maintained: everyone gets nailed. So careful was Costner in husbanding this film financially and philosophically that America’s current military concerns are absent. Or perhaps that was a statement all its own.
After the winning first ninety minutes be prepared for twenty which are lost. Why do directors insist on adding material that is looking for a movie? Mare Winningham’s performance as the absent mother is wasted. The seriousness of satire is unnecessarily interrupted by delving into a part of the characters’ lives that does not match the intention of the script. Stanley Tucci and Nathan Lane as seared conscience campaign managers do matter to the material, playing their parts with verve. Kelsey Grammar and Dennis Hopper as president and hopeful, actually succeed in making us believe they are having second thoughts about first priorities.
Molly’s disgusted looks given to both party’s candidates make the message of Swing Vote clear: we have real problems believing any politician. But we live in a country where everyone should be involved yet just over half of the electorate votes. So Molly’s classroom report sets the tone for the film. Practice citizenship. Participate in the social contract. Invest oneself in a cause. Find solutions. Reach out. No matter one’s political preference or response any of America’s 21st century’s presidents, Swing Vote forces us back into the voting booth.
Rated PG-13 for profanity and adult situations. In addition: for those who enjoy DVD extras, make sure to watch Costner’s band perform “Hey Man, What About You?”
Dr. Mark Eckel is Professor of Old Testament at Crossroads Bible College