Requesting Our Vote . . .

6 08 2008

Joshua Michael Stern’s Swing Vote was paid for by Kevin Costner, the man who made baseball players appear out of thin air in Field of Dreams, who resurrected the cause of Native Americans in Dances with Wolves, and who saved Whitney Houston’s bacon in The Guardian, who worked to crack open the Kennedy assassination in JFK. Here, he plays Bud Johnson, an out-of-work, beer-guzzling, blue-collar, overaged teenager being nursed through life by Molly, his precocious (and, curiously, obnoxious) preteen daughter (Madeline Carroll), a tike who believes in democracy and wants her father to vote on election day. He’s too drunk, so she sneaks into the polling booth instead, but her ballot is inadvertently stuck in the machine because of a momentary power outage. The purely fabular quality of the film is announced when a balletic flurry of media coverage now makes it clear that the Presidential contest between a Democratic wannabe (a somewhat jaundiced Dennis Hopper) and the Republic incumbent (Kelsey Grammer) is tied, and that the as-yet-uncompleted New Mexico voting will determine who gets the five electoral votes from that state and, consequently, the presidency. The missing vote is tagged to Bud, and his little trailer soon becomes the hub of a media frenzy that looks roughly like Times Square on New Year’s Eve. He will be able to cast his vote in ten days, and in the meantime the two candidates fly to New Mexico with their campaign managers (Nathan Lane, Stanley Tucci) to unctuously curry his favor.

For the film to work–and basically, at least on the surface, it does–Bud must be, if nothing else, trustworthy, since the fate of the world lies in his fingertips. Perhaps this is why he is configured as a man of no great intelligence. As Marie Dressler said to Wallace Beery in Min and Bill (1930), “I trust you. You’re too dumb to be anything but honest.” Straightforward, no nonsense anti-intellectualism, playing up the same sentimentalities that worked to align us with Beery, with Gary Cooper in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and also, in so many films where his excess of style masked over the fact that the women around him knew much than he did about what was going on, with Cary Grant. Bud Johnson can’t quite figure it all out, and so we love him.

Two things about the film stand out, one of importance for film scholars and the other bearing more centrally on the democratic process, the upcoming presidential election, and America’s chances for becoming, as the film puts it, “a better place to live.” Indeed, in the “final” debate between the candidates, moderated by Bud, that climaxes the film, on the eve before he is to enter the polling booth, his first question bluntly confronts the two men with the fact that America is the so-called richest country on earth but a huge number of its citizens cannot afford to live there. What should interest students of film is the persisting, even dominant power of Kevin Costner onscreen. Rolling over in a half-drunk stupor as his daughter tries to haul him out of bed, grinning ignorantly into the television cameras as he is put up on national display, sheepishly and then with growing confidence enduring the presence of the President (on Air Force One) and his opponent (at a specially catered soiree where all Bud’s favorite foods–cheesios, for example–have been secretly found out in advance and served up as high cuisine), and then finally gathering his wits together and making a sober address to the television audience as the moderator of the debate, Costner is never less than believable, never less than convicted, even though much of what he is given to do in Jason Richman and Stern’s script is beneath his talents. He is an actor who brings tremendous warmth to the work he does onscreen, and the warmth is palpable for viewers of any political persuasion. So is his sincerity, as he makes the point that voting is important, the true birthright of democracy.

Yet, even if the film wishes to make the point that in this mythical America one single vote can count as much as millions, is this really true when there’s no real choice? Both candidates are shown in this film to be weak-spirited and not very bright men, who have fallen into the clutches of truly venal hacks capable of spinning any argument, twisting any scenario, to get power. It isn’t long before, in order to woo Bud, the Republic President has taken to environmentalism and supporting gay marriage; and the democratic hopeful has started out on a Pro-Life escapade. When the Republicans behave like Democrats; and the Democrats like Republicans; and when we know they are absolutely untrustworthy, ready to abandon any position at a moment’s notice; how can it be argued that every vote counts? In the end, of course, we dissolve away from the debate before either candidate can really answer Bud’s provocative question; and when he goes into the voting booth to commit the act of imprinting the future—because not only every vote counts, but this one vote counts more than other votes count—we skip to closing credits without finding out which way he went.

The point, presumably, is that Bud’s presence behind the curtain (like that of the Wizard of Oz) indicates a kind of magical individuality and empowerment, an ascension to a point of political and cultural dominance by one man who ultimately believes in the system of powerful men. The tiebreaker becomes an emperor, if only for a day. Yet, of even this emperor, we learn nothing, finally, as to his choices. How will he vote? And why? And why, too, except that he is a Great and Powerful Man, should his single vote count as he chooses between this Pepsi and this Coke of fictive political life? If only we might have heard the candidates enunciate strongly held and different positions—but when they do, they have been trying to persuade poor Bud, and so selling out their real positions to present what they think he wants to hear (while he, of course, is too politically untutored to hear anything).

What’s strange about this film, then, and even a little miraculous, is that it tries so hard to promote the idea that voting is the birthright of democracy while simultaneously constructing a political contest that is all masquerade, a contest in which intelligent choice is impossible.

One small, jarring note for those (like Costner, I believe) who believe in the romantic America of Huckleberry Finn. Bud goes fishing one morning after losing his job, and insists that his daughter come along, although she whines that she wants to be in school. The importance of school and education notwithstanding (this girl is doing very, very well in school already, and there is no mistake about it), what American child does not relish the idea of sitting by the sunny banks of the lazily moving stream with a fishing line in the water? What can possibly have happened to those authentic virtues that our little Molly can have so casually abandoned them, while still preaching the importance of civic duty and voting? And why doesn’t something important happen to Bud, in this place and at this moment? Why doesn’t Bud come to understand–and he doesn’t, not here, not anywhere in Swing Vote–that this is the freedom everybody is always talking about, the great MacGuffin of democracy made real and palpable in the lazy sunshine? The candidates and their handlers, but also, it seems, the filmmakers, have come to think as Molly does, that our bureaucracies will save us.

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