In the new political satire Swing Vote, the presidential election hinges on New Mexico’s five measly electoral votes. This turn of events feels oddly realistic given our state’s swing state status, not to mention the hanging-chad trauma of the 2000 election.
But Swing Vote’s premise takes things a step, and then a leap, further. Since New Mexico’s votes are evenly split, one man will decide who will be the next president of the United States. That man is Ernest “Bud” Johnson—his name screams with meaning—a resident of Texico, NM, which, according to the film, is one of those rare New Mexico small towns that possesses a larger black population than a Hispanic one, and, moreover, one in which every resident speaks with a Californian inflection.
So the depiction of New Mexico is unrepresentative. No matter. At least there is finally a film that recognizes New Mexico’s centrality. But center of what, exactly? Ignorance? Sloven drunkenness? Poultry factories? Alas, Swing Vote, which was filmed in Albuquerque, Belen, Santa Fe and Corrales, isn’t exactly a rose-colored postcard to the world from the Land of Enchantment.
Bud, played by Kevin Costner, is a trailer-dwelling, obscenity-spewing, beer-guzzling egg-farm worker who conceals his paunch beneath a Southwestern shirt with sawn-off sleeves. Instead of taking his 12-year-old daughter, Molly (Madeline Carroll)—equal parts Olive from Little Miss Sunshine, Mother Teresa and poli sci grad student—to school, Bud takes her fly-fishing on the Pecos River. Molly is clearly the adult in the family.
When Molly, in some well-intentioned voter fraud, attempts to vote on apolitical Bud’s behalf, the voting machine malfunctions and Bud is given 10 days until he is scheduled to “re”-vote. And so the world descends on tiny Texico, stealthily assembling stadium seating and lighting around the Johnsons’ trailer as they sleep.
This clever set-up launches several small dramas in which characters—Bud, the two candidates (Kelsey Grammer and Dennis Hopper) and a beautiful journalist (Paula Patton) from the ridiculously nice local television station—learn moral lessons, each inspired by the already perfected Molly. It also provides ample opportunity for political satire aimed at the media spectacle of politics and, particularly, at the flip-flopping, marketing-based nature of modern political campaigning.
If you enter Swing Vote, as the Screener did, with exceptionally low expectations, you will be pleasantly surprised. Despite its cloying, lamely manipulative soundtrack, its one-note characterizations, its lowest-common-denominator scripting and its softball satire aimed almost exclusively at the easy targets, Swing Vote has enough winning moments to warrant a viewing. These come mostly in the form of hilarious campaign ads aimed squarely at Bud—actually addressing him by name, at times—that the candidates’ Rovian campaign managers concoct when they suspect him of leaning one way or the other on any given issue.
And if the line between news and entertainment wasn’t already blurry enough, cameos by Chris Matthews, Larry King and Tucker Carlson continue the trend of “newsmen” lending Hollywood films verisimilitude. But if approximating the truth was the filmmakers’ intention, why not have one significant Latino character? Too much to ask? OK, how about a breakfast burrito then, smothered, Christmas?
Directed by Joshua Michael Stern and written by Joshua Michael Stern and Jason Richman
With Kevin Costner, Madeline Carroll, Paula Patton, Kelsey Grammer and Dennis Hopper
Dreamcatcher, Regal Stadium 14
100 min., PG-13