12 year old Molly Johnson (Madeline Carroll) lives in the nowhere town of Texico, New Mexico. Bright as a spark and passionate about politics, she endeavours to ensure her deadbeat dad, Bud (Kevin Costner) casts his vote in the upcoming presidential election. But come polling night, when a drunken Bud fails to show, Molly is about to sneak a ballot when the power shuts off. The result of this mishap leaves the election hanging on a single, as yet uncast vote: Bud’s. Soon the world’s media, including ambitious local reporter Kate Madison (Paula Patton), descend on the Johnsons as Republican President Andrew Boone (Kelsey Grammer) and Democrat hopeful Donald Greenleaf (Dennis Hopper) go to outrageous lengths to court Bud’s vote, while young Molly finds her faith in her father sorely tested.
Kevin Costner has spent a lot of his career reviving movie genres from yesteryear, notably the western but equally the kind of folksy, feel-good, satirical comedies Frank Capra used to make back in the golden age of Hollywood. Smart, snappy and sweet-natured, Swing Vote was bankrolled by Costner himself in what was clearly a heartfelt venture and cleverly subverts the usual Capraesque set-up. Instead of a lone patriotic individual challenging the system, events hinge on an apathetic antihero seemingly more interested in his fifteen minutes of fame than the fate of his country. It is a film haunted by ghosts of the 2000 presidential election wherein farcical events in Florida briefly managed what cameoing satirist Bill Maher argues Bud is doing here, namely turn the world’s greatest democracy into a laughing stock. Voter turnout has fallen sharply in the years since and, through the idealistic Molly, writer-director Joshua Michael Stern argues democracy is a right too many of us take for granted.
But the film does not lay all the blame on the American voter. Democratic campaign manager Art Crumb (Nathan Lane) and satanic Karl Rove-alike Republican media manipulator Marty Fox (Stanley Tucci) drive their candidates to increasingly crass attempts to woo Bud, from a joy ride with race car driver Richard Petty to a personal plea from his idol: Willie Nelson. Art admits being so desperate to win he would betray his own liberal principles while Marty stations tall blond men outside voting booths in the belief their presence will scare elderly Jewish voters away! These men have reduced politics to a game, robbing their candidates of whatever weight their words once had. Winning has become everything, substance no longer matters. While Paula Patton is not sparky enough in the kind of role Jean Arthur used to knock out of the park, the manner in which media misrepresentation of Bud’s mumbled comments spurs the canditates to flip-flop on issues like abortion and gays in the workplace is genuinely amusing. The film is generous with its sympathies but hits a number of hot-button topics including immigration, national security and unemployment with disarming wit.
At heart it remains a story about a fraught relationship between a father and his daughter, whose central gag is that the political animals fail to see their parent/child dynamic is reversed. Costner delivers his strongest performance in years as the lazy, feckless alcoholic whom we nevertheless discover to be a loving parent after an emotional encounter with Molly’s estranged mom (Mare Winningham). But the film truly belongs to impressive newcomer Madeline Carroll whose tenderness and impassioned sincerity lends real weight to Molly’s assertion that the two party system has neglected the working poor. In the film’s most Capraesque scene, millions of letters from average Americans arrive at Bud’s door, but it is Molly who answers each and every one, pledging to do what she can. Realising Bud has a chance to speak for the people, she ingeniously engineers a presidential debate wherein her father will ask the questions. His climactic speech hits on some very real issues and seems as much Costner’s own plea to the electorate as Bud’s attempt to find redemption.