SWING VOTE ss Directed by Joshua Michael Stern Written by Stern and Jason Richman With Kevin Costner, Madeline Carroll, Paula Patton, Kelsey Grammer, Dennis Hopper, Nathan Lane, and Stanley Tucci

If you’re as hooked on coverage of the presidential campaign as I am, you’re probably aware of a pernicious new euphemism that’s crept into the political lexicon: low-information voters. As an abuse of the English language, this may not rank with advanced interrogation techniques, but it still raises my blood pressure every time I hear it. I believe the more precise terminology is ignorant clowns. That may sound cruel, but if the media showed less sensitivity to such people, perhaps there wouldn’t be quite so many of them. Unlike blindness or retardation, ignorance is easily cured.

Ignorant clowns are but one segment of the larger, more defensible group known as swing voters. According to the Gallup Poll, about 23 percent of likely voters haven’t yet decided between John McCain and Barack Obama; a recent CBS/New York Times poll puts the figure at 36 percent. Some of these voters are badly needed moderates in a political landscape so polarized the federal government barely functions. Some are intelligent, reasonably well informed people who realize that both parties serve special interests and that Election Day is the only time independents have any power at all. But some of them are just ignorant clowns, more susceptible than most people to slick commercials, emotional appeals, and brazen distortions of fact. Such is the great paradox of electoral democracy: by the time the polls open, the voters with the most influence are those who deserve it the least.

Swing Vote, the new Kevin Costner vehicle, focuses on this unfortunate phenomenon and magnifies it to the point of absurdity. Costner plays Earnest “Bud” Johnson, an ignorant clown in tiny Texico, New Mexico, whose wife has long since disappeared and whose hyper-responsible young daughter, Molly (Madeline Carroll), has to hound him out of bed just so he’ll show up for his dead-end job at an egg-packing plant. On the evening of Election Day, Bud is too absorbed in beer and foosball at the local tavern to meet Molly at the polling place as promised. Angry and ashamed, she takes advantage of a snoozing election official to steal her father’s ballot and cast it for him, but an electronic voting machine fails to register the vote. In a farcical take on the Florida recount in 2000, the presidency comes down to New Mexico’s five electoral votes, and New Mexico comes down to Bud Johnson, who has ten days to choose the next president of the United States.

Screenwriters Jason Richman and Joshua Michael Stern might have been inspired by Garson Kanin’s comedy The Great Man Votes (1939), with John Barrymore as an alcoholic ex-professor called upon to cast a critical vote in a big-city mayoral election. But by inflating the premise to the scale of a modern presidential race, and making their great man a clown so ignorant he’s never heard of Roe v. Wade, they shine a harsh light on what it takes to win the White House these days. The Republican incumbent, Andrew Boone (Kelsey Grammer), and his Democratic challenger, Donald Greenleaf (Dennis Hopper), each launch a full-court press for Bud’s vote. Boone dispatches NASCAR driver Richard Petty to make a personal appeal, invites Bud onto Air Force One for a beer, and lets him hold the “nuclear football.” Greenleaf counters with Willie Nelson, throws Bud a swanky party (with martini glasses full of Cheetos), and tries to pass himself off as a skeet shooter.

The situation gets even more ridiculous once an ambitious reporter (Paula Patton) begins coaxing Bud into giving his half-assed opinions and the candidates twist themselves into pretzels to oblige him. After Bud decides he has no problem with same-sex marriage, a TV commercial shows Boone locking arms with gay and lesbian couples. After Bud decides he’s pro-life, another TV commercial shows Greenleaf condemning abortion on a playground as little children disappear—poof!—into clouds of smoke. Naturally the candidates’ core constituencies are furious, but much the same thing happens in real life every four years once the nominations are locked up. When the president confesses his disgust at such blatant pandering, his icy campaign guru (Stanley Tucci) shrugs him off, and his rejoinder lays bare the movie’s comic formula: “We’re just doing what we’ve always done. Dancing the dance. Courting the voters. That’s all. Only this time, it’s just one guy.”

Following this trend, Swing Vote might have snowballed into an enjoyably vicious political satire, but then the bags of mail start arriving. Since the days of Frank Capra, bags of mail have been Hollywood shorthand for the simple yearnings of the common folk, and true to form, the letters piling up in Bud’s trailer are from people who’ve lost their jobs or their health care or their homes and want him to put in a good word with the candidates so they’ll address the country’s real problems and stop making dumb commercials about abortion and gay marriage. Bud ignores the letters at first, leaving Molly to sort and answer them while he enjoys his ten days of instant celebrity. But it’s only a matter of time before Stern and Costner, who produced the movie, try to morph their ignorant clown into a noble tribune of the people, and the movie becomes a gag-inducing exercise in righteousness.

As a star presence Costner has been compared most often to Gary Cooper, and by the last reel Swing Vote has been wrestled into a weak facsimile of Capra’s Meet John Doe, in which Cooper played a suicidal bum turned into a national folk hero by cynical newspaper columnist Barbara Stanwyck. There’s the same loathing of the press (which Costner shares personally and declared vociferously in a recent NPR interview). There’s the same traumatic shaming of the hero, a key ritual in Capra’s social-comment pictures (Bud happens into the local diner, finds his neighbors have turned against him, and hears comedian Bill Maher, on the TV, denouncing him as a “dumbass”). And as Bud prepares to moderate an 11th-hour presidential debate, there’s the same moment of truth before a live microphone, with millions waiting in silence for his halting words of expiation.

To Stern and Richman’s credit, those words actually hit home, reconnecting the movie, if only for a moment, to the uncomfortable truth that provided its earlier bite. “I’ve had my chances, more than most,” Bud confesses to the candidates. “I’ve grown up in a country where, if I’d decided to do more with my life than just drift and dream, I could be standing where, maybe, you stand tonight. Instead I’ve taken freely and I’ve given nothing. I’m ashamed in front of my daughter and my country. I’ve never served or sacrificed, and the only heavy lifting I have ever been asked is simple stuff like: Pay attention. Vote. If America has a true enemy tonight, I guess it’s me.” After that, men start hauling up bags of mail to lay on the platform, and Bud launches into a tired homily about the country needing better leaders. I can’t argue with that, but Swing Vote is most distinctive in asking for better followers.v

Care to comment? Find this review at chicagoreader.com. And for more on movies, visit our blog On Film.