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For George H.W. Bush, it was discovering as a vice-presidential candidate the wonders of the trickle-down theory in what presidential candidate Bush had earlier dubbed 'voodoo economics," or how pro-choice presidential candidate Bush become a right-to-life vice-presidential candidate within a matter of months. Things haven't changed much seven presidential campaigns later. John McCain now cozies up to the Christian right that he once dubbed 'agents of intolerance." Using his own experience in Vietnam as an example, he opposes the use of torture, until its time to cast his Senate vote giving the president the power to torture if he wants to. Barack Obama is in favor of strict gun control laws until there's a political advantage to oppose strict gun control laws; he's opposed to offshore oil drilling until the current energy crisis makes that position a political loser, so now he's for it. Politics in American isn't about principle; it's about polling. And that's the central premise in Joshua Michael Stern's Swing Vote.

Written by Stern with Jason Richman, Swing Vote is the story of the presidential election between incumbent Republican Andrew Boone (Kelsey Grammer) and Democratic challenger Donald Greenleaf (Dennis Hopper " there is something downright wicked in casting the old Easy Rider as the liberal standard bearer) and the sinister figures who run their campaigns, the Karl Rove stand-in Martin Fox (Stanley Tucci) and the desperate-to-win Democrat Art Crumb (Nathan Lane).

The election itself, over in the film's first few minutes, is a frightening reminder of how divided we are in this country. The premise would seem ridiculous if George W. Bush hadn't lost the popular vote to Al Gore in 2000 but claimed the White House on the basis of a disputed 500-vote win in Florida. In Swing Vote, the election comes down to the electoral vote of New Mexico where the popular vote is tied with the ballot in one malfunctioning voting machine yet to be counted. That ballot belongs to trailer-dwelling, pickup-driving, unemployed factory worker Bud Johnson (Kevin Costner), a good ole boy who likes to sleep late and drink hard. If Bud's precious 10-year-old daughter Molly (Madeline Carroll) wasn't a current events whiz, Bud might not even realize an election is underway. He doesn't like voting because he knows it would expose him to the possibility of jury duty.

But this time, vote Bud must, and with the next occupant of the White House to be determined by one man, Boone and Greenleaf launch a two-week campaign directed at Bud alone. Their operatives try to sift out his prejudices, and the candidates then adopt whatever position they think might win his vote. All played for laughs, the pro-development Republican becomes an environmentalist, while the Democrat pulls a Bush I and abandons choice for right-to-life.

This is all at least middling funny. There's a nice side bit about Bud playing in a Willie Nelson tribute band brightly called the Half Nelsons. Costner has found a nice recent niche playing deadbeats with a cuddly core. His performance is much akin to his role in The Upside of Anger. And Bud's complicated but ultimately loving relationship with Molly will recall Alan Arkin's with Abigail Breslin in Little Miss Sunshine. Were it not for Molly's urgent determination to see her dad as a hero, we would have little choice but to judge him an irredeemable lout.

Not a lot of the plot makes much sense. Bud is practically trapped in his trailer by the howling mob of reporters, but when it's convenient, he's able to move around as he chooses. And since Bud readily agrees to meet with both candidates, their decisions to produce elaborate television commercials seem unnecessary and stupid, openly exposing their hypocrisy when it would make much more sense just to lie to Bud behind closed doors. Of course, the filmmakers had a ball with those commercials, and much of the comedy proceeds from them.

Swing Vote gives off a strong whiff of Frank Capra's celebration of small-town American individualism. Bud's concluding speech about core American values has a rousing Fourth of July spirit. But in the end, the picture isn't nearly as optimistic as Capra's where Mr. Smith can go to Washington and actually make a difference. Swing Vote tries to fudge this point in the late going, but Boone and Greenleaf are buffoons. We don't care which one Bud votes for, and through the bombast of the end we hear Bud's opening snarl about the pointlessness of voting because 'whoever gets elected doesn't change anything." George W. Bush certainly changed things. And if we concentrate on the Supreme Court alone, it makes a mighty difference if Obama is elected rather than McCain and vice versa.

click to enlarge Swing Vote dares to ask, "Who would Bud (Kevin Costner) choose?' - 2008 TOUCHSTONE PICTURES
  • 2008 Touchstone Pictures
  • Swing Vote dares to ask, "Who would Bud (Kevin Costner) choose?'
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