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In modern-day political punditry, voters are lumped, generally, into three broad categories. You have your red-state voters. You have your blue-state voters. And then you have those voters who live in the great state of Confusion.
Take Earnest "Bud" Johnson. He's as confused as they come—a real Joe Sixpack from the tiny town of Texico, New Mexico, who spends his days fishing, swilling beer and sleeping off hangovers. He used to have a job but was recently let go from the local egg-sorting plant for, among other things, scrambling the merchandise while guzzling booze. Bud likely thinks the G8 is a cable channel and the president's cabinet is a fancy place to stash expensive double-malt scotch.
Vote? For president? Bud doesn't even know who's running.
The same cannot be said for Bud's tween daughter, Molly—a whip-smart student who aspires to be a veterinarian or "chairman of the Fed." Molly takes care of her immature single father as best she can: She's his nanny, alarm clock and cook, regularly whipping up batches of egg salad for Bud's lunch.
He complains about the food, naturally, but Molly isn't fazed. "You want to eat better?" she snaps. "Drink less beer."
What does Molly ask of Bud in return? That he vote so she can document the experience for a class project. His choices? Republican incumbent Andrew Boone or Democratic upstart Donald Greenleaf. Predictably, Bud gets distracted by booze and foosball: When he finally remembers, he staggers to his truck and promptly passes out.
Long story short—and this comedy is a full two hours long—Molly ends up trying to vote for Dad. She's almost done it when ... the power goes out.
Next thing you know, reporters from all over the world are camped out on their front porch demanding to know who Bud is going to vote for. Even the candidates themselves are in town to wine and dine their new favorite American. It seems that state law mandates that Bud has to recast his vote, and, oh, by the way, the election was so tight that the presidential race will hinge on his decision.
Bud has more serious faults than the San Andreas. He's, in many respects, a terrible father. But, emotionally at least, he cares deeply for Molly and, when he thinks the men from the election commission might be social service workers who've come to take Molly away, he begs them to reconsider.
"Please don't take Molly away from me," he pleads. "She's my only good thing."
And good she is. This longsuffering child has taken care of her dad for so long that it's second nature to her. She protects him as best she can—a particularly big challenge when the eyes of the free world are on the guy. She answers the scads of mail he's suddenly getting: "She wanted people to think you cared," a secret service agent later tells Bud. And when he forgets about Bring Your Father to School Day, Molly covers for him there, too. She tells her class that Bud's absorbed with his upcoming vote:
"He's doing his best," she says through tears. "But he can't be everywhere at once." Lies, of course, should never be condoned. But Molly's love for her imperfect pop is both thought-provoking and heartbreaking.
Thankfully, Bud eventually realizes what a jerk he's been—not just to Molly, but to the whole country. And he offers an apology on national television.
The political candidates themselves spend a good chunk of this film wandering in the ethical wilderness, but both, apparently, find their way back to their principles before the credits roll. Similarly, a TV reporter finds herself regretting some of the underhanded tactics she's used to get the big scoop.
None of those things, however, hint at Swing Vote's biggest positive message: Go vote! It'll be hard for most folks to walk out of the theater without feeling like they'd be a miserably lazy failure of an American if they didn't vote in the next election.
When Bud and Molly think that social services has come to intervene, Molly puts on a cross necklace and hands Bud a Bible—hoping, apparently, the appearance of piety will help keep them together. Bud later places his hand on that same Bible and lies under oath.
Bud makes references to Jesus and God throughout this film—though never reverentially. "You need to stop using Jesus' name as a cuss word all the time," Molly scolds. "He's a billion peoples' savior, you know."
The campaigns of both political candidates make glancing nods to faith—primarily in discussing how to leverage it for political gain. Martin Fox, the strategist for Boone, orders more runs of an ad critical of same-sex marriage to get those "God-fearing b--tards off the fence." When the dyed-in-the-wool Democrat Greenleaf decides to carry the pro-life banner (thinking Bud favors that position), he ends a television commercial by saying that his position is all about "fulfilling God's intelligent design."
The camera zooms in on the cleavage of a political partygoer, and a few other women are shown in the background sporting sinking necklines. Bud is voted People magazine's "Sexiest Man of the Year." Molly slyly rips on Bud for going to strip clubs. A crack is made about Greenleaf having vacationed at a nudist colony.
Bud says in an interview that he doesn't much care about the issue of same-sex marriage: If two "queens" want to get together, he says, that's nobody's business but theirs. This leads GOP candidate Boone to flip on the issue and come out (as it were) for homosexual marriage—unveiling an elaborate commercial featuring a same-sex couple hamming it up for the camera while repeating the ad's slogan, "I do!"
Bud hits his head on a sign that reads, "Vote Today!" A few days later, he angrily rips down the same sign and tosses it away. Bud also plays with—and chews the barrel off of—a semiautomatic weapon made entirely of chocolate. (It was sent to him by the gun lobby.)
Crude or Profane Language
Think politics is dirty? Bud's language fits right in, then. He (and other characters) let loose about 20 s-words, and he also blurts out the f-word once. He misuses God's and Jesus' names more than a dozen times (pairing God's with "d--n" several times). Repetitive crudities include "a--," "h---" and "b--ch."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Earnest Johnson evidently didn't just get his nickname "Bud" because he's a friendly guy. The beer is his beverage of choice (and a lucrative opportunity for product placement within Swing Vote). He spends much of the film straddling a range of inebriation points, from slightly buzzed to totally trashed. Beer cans litter the floor of his trailer, he's reduced to crawling to his truck after an afternoon at the bar and he's shown drinking on the job.
That said, we do see that booze is not an altogether positive force in Bud's life. It clearly bothers his daughter, impairs his ability to be a good father and, indirectly, makes him a national laughingstock. Then, as the story strengthens, Bud turns sober: He dumps a margarita to the ground in one scene and puts aside a just-opened beer can in another.
When we meet Molly's mother (who deserted her family), we learn she has issues, too, probably worse than Bud's. We see her sweep bottles of medication off a table when Molly comes to visit, and Bud tells her that he thought she had "cleaned up."
Other Negative Elements
Bud crudely disses Molly's schoolteacher when he learns she's told the class that "every vote counts." Presidential advisor Fox tells underlings to bus young, male, blond, Republicans to polling stations in Florida—hoping the Aryan-looking youth will dissuade elderly, Democratic, Jewish voters from entering.
Laws aplenty are broken in Swing Vote: Strategists plot. Journalists scheme. Tweens drive. (Molly does so when Bud's too drunk to get them home, and a schoolmate of hers sneaks off with his dad's truck to help Molly run away.) Bud's a convicted felon, and some of his friends are in prison. To rectify this "travesty," Greenleaf pulls some strings to get them released.
All sorts of serious issues and whole categories of people become the brunt of jokes—some of them boorish, most of them trivializing. The list includes, but isn't limited to, illegal immigrants, environmentalists, abortion activists, pro-lifers, Christians, gays, politicians, journalists, small-town folk, poor folk and rich folk. One political advisor says that, to win, they'll need to "rip the Statue of Liberty a new one."
Equal-opportunity jabs and crass language lose this election by a landslide vote, but I still wish I could give the film more props. Because underneath its brassy lapel pin, Swing Vote is a film about responsibility—responsibility to country, responsibility to family. It tells us that the United States shouldn't be so much a caregiver to us as she should be our Molly—giving and forgiving, a girl who depends on us for care, attention and love.
But while the story worked on an emotional level for me, it's a bit squirrelly ethically. Swing Vote's entire arc rests on an illegal act (Molly "voting" for her dad) and its subsequent cover-up. Let's not forget that Watergate was also, essentially, about those same two issues, and we don't go around crafting political fables out of that narrative.
After the world descends on Bud and Molly's tiny trailer, both realize that if they tell the media what really happened—that Molly sneaked in and signed her dad's name to the voting registry—it's likely that Bud will go to jail (he swore an oath saying that Molly's signature was his own) and Molly would be taken away. The quandary leaves them, they believe, with only one choice.
"We'll lie," Molly says. "We have to."
"Good plan," returns Dad.
Molly reconsiders at several points, but that lie—a pretty big one, considering—is never uncovered. And when a local journalist stumbles on the truth, she ultimately helps protect the facade.
Swing Vote lauds its politicians when they turn their backs on political expediency and return to their values, even when it might cost them dearly. It does the same thing with journalists. Why should Bud and Molly not be held to that same high standard, then?
Which leaves me stewing over a very politically nuanced verdict on Swing Vote: It's good. It's bad. And it carries with it more than a whiff of scandal.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Kevin Costner as Bud Johnson; Madeline Carroll as Molly Johnson; Paula Patton as Kate Madison; Kelsey Grammer as President Andrew Boone; Dennis Hopper as Donald Greenleaf; Nathan Lane as Art Crumb; Stanley Tucci as Martin Fox; George Lopez as John Sweeney; Judge Reinhold as Walter; and with Richard Petty, Willie Nelson, Aaron Brown, James Carville, Mary Hart, Arianna Huffington, Larry King, Bill Maher and Chris Matthews as Themselves
Joshua Michael Stern ( Jobs)