Voters in the United States are generally closed-minded, lazy and uninformed, though we have a tradition of embracing movies that say otherwise. Since the common-man glorifications of Frank Capra 75 years ago, we've believed the average Joe requires only a spark of curiosity and decency to become a protector of America's democratic heritage, and the beguiling “Swing Vote” plays smoothly to that expectation.
Kevin Costner, always at his best when playing amiable rogues, embodies 50-ish Bud Johnson, an alcoholic and soon-to-be-unemployed single dad in a rural New Mexico county. By a process that's too silly to be believed (but easy enough to ignore), he's responsible for casting the final vote in an election. As the county results are tied – and the outcome will tip New Mexico's electoral votes toward one party in the presidential race, which also happens to be virtually tied – Bud becomes the guy who'll elect the next U.S. president 10 days later.
Director Joshua Michael Stern, who wrote the script with Jason Richman, finds a lot of humor in the dignified sucking-up of the Republican and Democratic candidates (Kelsey Grammer and Dennis Hopper), who fly to Bud's town to woo him. His whims and offhand pronouncements perversely influence national policy: The development-mad Republican proclaims a national park so Bud will have a place to fish, while the Democrat announces a crackdown on immigrants after learning Bud lost his job at the egg-packing plant to a Latino. (He lost it for being drunk, but….)
The film seems like a loose and uncredited updating of “The Great Man Votes,” a more serious 1939 entry in which an alcoholic widower with kids turns out to be the only registered voter in a precinct. Yet “Swing Vote” isn't full-blown political satire, because the filmmakers want to inspire rather than depress us.
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As in so many Capra films, a savvy female shapes up the hero, alerting him to responsibilities and helping him prepare for his civic duty. (Well, some of it: Bud knows nothing about candidates for other offices or issues on the ballot.) Here she's an elementary schooler: Madeline Carroll, who plays Bud's daughter with a sweet mixture of exasperation and undying hope.
When the candidates agree to a debate where Bud asks the questions, the film suggests she'll transform him overnight into a citizen capable of speaking for thousands of people who've written him plaintive letters. That's a fantasy lazy voters would love to believe, though it's as likely as training for a marathon by running a 5-K the day before.