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Thursday, Aug. 14, 2008

Only in America? (Swing Vote)

Reaching Swing Voters

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It's not hard to imagine: Frank Capra, who directed Mr.Smith Goes to Washington and It's a Wonderful Life, would have made Swing Vote had he lived today. He might have made this civics lesson in American politics more concise and a bit sharper, but he would applaud the spirit, the message and the delivery. Swing Vote is a movie dramatizing the hopeful democratic idea that everyone's vote counts.

Kevin Costner is no Jimmy Stewart but he's a plausible stand-in for Capra's other favorite actor, Gary Cooper. In Swing Vote, Costner's solid matinee features have been allowed to chip at the edges. As the reluctant protagonist Bud Johnson, Costner resembles a good-looking guy gone to seed from too much beer and too little exercise. Although he talks of regrouping his Willie Nelson tribute band, once the bass player is out on parole, his nights pass in a stupor and his days in the tedious routine of packing egg cartons at the local plant. He lives in a sagging trailer going nowhere.

Bud's daughter Mollie (Madeline Carroll) is just about the only spark remaining in his life. She is 12 going on 25, a relentlessly precocious Disney kid. Mollie lectures her curmudgeonly dad as he drives her to school in his rusty pickup truck on civic responsibility, especially in the season of a presidential election. When she asks about his political affiliation, Bud replies, "Conscientious objector," and adds, "Votes don't matter."

Swing Vote is a fable about how much his vote matters. When Bud passes out in his truck after a beery night at the foosball table, Mollie sneaks into the polling place in their dinky, dusty town of Texico, New Mexico, and casts his vote. Rather, tries to cast his vote. Fate intervenes in the form of a power outage, rendering his ballot "irregular." Since the too-close-to-call election is deadlocked, New Mexico's paltry handful of electoral votes will decide the day. And since the state's voters were evenly split between the two preposterous candidates, Republican incumbent Andrew Boone (Kelsey Grammer) and Democratic challenger Donald Greenleaf (Dennis Hopper), the opportunity for Bud to recast his vote will determine the future of the world.

Capra loved showing how the actions of ordinary people can impact lives and even change history's course. Bud's choice can either topple the square jawed GOP bungler or defeat his unctuous, glib-talking rival. "Only in America," as they say.

Funny and occasionally poignant, Swing Vote focuses on the media circus that gathers around Bud. Representatives of networks and major newspapers ring Bud's trailer 24/7 on bleachers, shouting out questions whenever he appears in the window. Also satirized is the winning-is-everything, promise-them-anything mentality of political operatives. Both candidates and their prominent supporters descend on tiny Texico to court the only voter who still matters. Boone dispatches NASCAR champion Richard Petty to Bud's doorstep and Greenleaf invites the star-struck musician to play one with Willie. Bud has never given much thought to politics and the candidates' handlers scrutinize his spotty TV interviews as if they were poll numbers. When Bud appears to favor gay marriage, Boone reverses position and comes out in favor of gay rights. When Bud says that life is good, he guesses, Greenleaf abruptly promises to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Like Capra, Swing Vote's director-writer Joshua Michael Stern believes there are few truly evil men in this world. Both Boone and Greenleaf turn out to be decent chaps at heart, if warped by fear and ambition. Bud is also a good guy though easily bamboozled by all the attention. Through it all, only Mollie keeps her head, seeing through the backslapping and lies with clear eyes focused on the ideal, not the reality, of American politics. Wisdom from the mouth of a child? Capra would have loved that, too.