The conceit of Swing Vote--that the outcome of a Presidential election might come down to a single, solitary ballot--doesn't seem quite so far fetched when one considers not only the 2000 Presidential election, where fewer than 500 votes decided the outcome in Florida, but also the still making headlines Minnesota Senatorial contest, where a mere 250 or so votes separate the winner from the loser. With diminishing returns like that, can it be long before we are indeed on the cusp of an election decided by one man or woman? We should probably fervently pray that that person is nothing like Bud Johnson (Kevin Costner), the putative "hero" of Swing Vote, a drunken ne'er-do-well with minimal education, even less curiosity about his world, and, somehow, an incredibly gifted daughter (an amazing Madeline Carroll) who actually finds civic responsibility something to be encouraged.
Swing Vote, much like The Bucket List which I reviewed here some months ago, failed to really find its audience in its theatrical release, and, like Bucket, I think that can be laid directly to its marketing campaign, which advertised it as a comedy. While Swing Vote certainly has some comedic elements, notably its at times very funny swipes at our two parties and their craven desperation to get themselves elected, the film is actually an at times surprisingly profound look at what it really means to be an American (for better and/or worse), specifically with regard to our ability to elect new leaders every few years, but not only that. Swing Vote takes itself perhaps a bit too portentously for its own good by positing Costner's character as someone with nigh well no redeeming qualities, which makes the core of the film a bit exasperating at times. At two hours, Swing Vote goes on a little too long, kind of like a Florida recount, and that brings its one major failing--the unlikability of Bud Johnson--too often to the forefront.
That said, this is a heartfelt and very touching expose of dysfunctional family life, with little Molly Johnson finding herself the real parent of the family, as Bud is usually passed out from drinking too much. One of the things Swing Vote gets exactly, if depressingly, right is the dead end of some people's American dreams, and Costner's aging, weathered countenance ably portrays the death of Bud Johnson's hopes, as small scale as they may have been. The small town ambience of Texico, New Mexico is also well drawn, with a palpable feel for what the rural southwest is really like. The relationship between Bud and Molly is well handled, with Molly's dichotomous exasperation and love for her wayward father anchoring the film solidly without ever becoming overtly sentimental.
Once the film kicks into its second act, when Molly's act of desperation makes Bud the "decider" of the Presidential election, the film tilts slightly toward a dryly satiric edge, as both the President (Kelsey Grammer) and his opponent (Dennis Hopper) attempt to sway Bud's vote their way. Some of the fodder in this second act is perfectly handled, including American television news' penchant for overkill, as well as campaign management decisions that ultimately tip both the Democrats and Republicans into positions diametrically opposed to their longstanding platforms. Swing Vote handles these elements with ease, with some nicely written scenes by Director Joshua Michael Stern and his co-scenarist Jason Richman. Some of the campaign ads crafted specifically to woo Bud's vote are hilarious, including a Republican ad supporting gay marriage and especially a Democratic spot against abortion which offers a visual gag that is literally explosive.
Swing Vote has the expected third act change of heart renewal, which in the case of Hopper's character and his wife is handled with short shrift, but which in the case of an ambitious news reporter (Paula Patton), actually manages to feel real and therefore carries a bit of emotional heft. Costner's closing monologue, where he is "moderating" a debate between the candidates set up expressly to help him make up his mind, is a moving, Capra-esque moment that highlights the actor's wise move into character parts as he finds himself ensconced in middle age.
The film is full of some nice, if too short, supporting turns by Grammer and Hopper, as well as Stanley Tucci and Nathan Lane as their respective campaign managers. A slew of real life political commentators are also on hand to give the film some verisimilitude.
Ultimately, though, the film belongs heart and soul to Carroll, who is simply astoundingly good in the role of Molly. Carroll is as natural as they come, without a hint of artifice, and her Molly is a perfect little creation, full of wisdom, insecurity and more than a hint of mischief. Her heartbreaking scene with an excellent Mare Winningham, in a cameo role as Molly's long since departed mother, highlights the extraordinary abilities of this young actress. I for one won't be surprised if Carroll turns up as a Supporting Actress nominee when the Oscar fest begins here in a few weeks.
Director Stern mounts an extremely fluid production, if one that relies on a couple of "stupid camera tricks" a couple of times too many. Shane Hurlbut's cinematography captures a lot of the sweep and majesty of the American southwest, and John Debney contributes a wonderfully melodic score that tugs gently at the heartstrings with Copland-esque melodies. A bit too many source cues are used; this is not a film that really needs a constant underscore of rockabilly tunes.
For once, the screenwriters don't play us viewers as complete patsies and the denouement of Swing Vote is appealingly irresolute, and helps to win back some of the good will that's been squandered by one too many missteps by Bud's character. This ends up being more of a family tale than a political one in the long run, and when the focus returns squarely to Bud and Molly in the final scene, Swing Vote finds the heart of the matter quite winningly.