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Swing Vote plays fair to both politics and satire
Madeline Carroll steals the show as the responsible daughter in "Swing Vote." Kevin Costner plays her father, who has the power to select America's next president. - photo by Ben Glass

You've heard of a non-denial denial in politics? Well, "Swing Vote" is a non-political political movie. It's a fable, grounded in our real recent elections, that would rather make us laugh than stir up controversy.

The film's fictitious presidential election is so close that the outcome depends on one state, New Mexico. That state hinges on one district. Sound familiar? Well, here's when the fable takes over. That district is stuck in a tie, which will be broken by one man's vote. The entire presidential election is thus placed in one voter's hands.

Enter Bud Johnson (Kevin Costner), a barely employed, irresponsible guy who wants nothing to do with politics. Bud is unhappy when he learns his daughter, Molly (Madeline Carroll), has registered him to vote and expects him to come to school when she presents her civics report about the electoral process. Unhappy doesn't come close to describing his reaction when Molly's scheming makes him the decisive vote in the presidential election.

Bud, Molly and their sleepy hometown become the center of a media circus as the two candidates, incumbent President Andrew Boone (Kelsey Grammer) and challenger Donald Greenleaf (Dennis Hopper), shamelessly pander to Bud. Their smarmy advisors, Martin Fox (Stanley Tucci) and Art Crumb (Nathan Lane), push them to win at any cost. The media covers every moment of it, of course, and the film is filled with cameos by real political commentators.

The movie's premise lends itself to political satire and social commentary.

The satire is there, but this is not "Wag the Dog" or "Bob Roberts." The only moments when "Swing Vote" shows its intellectual fangs come during the candidates' outrageous TV ads. To win Bud's vote, each candidate abandons his own ideals and produces hilariously inappropriate ads that spoof real political ads.

As fun as it is to see a Democratic candidate suddenly become pro-life and a Republican candidate court the gay vote, the movie isn't really about policies and platforms.

"Swing Vote" fits in a category with movies like "The American President" or "Dave," in which politics walks hand in hand with a personal, character-driven story.

This is, first of all, a comedy with a working-class sensibility. Bud is a playful caricature of working-class America, and Costner fearlessly allows himself to be the butt of the joke.

When the movie takes a serious turn, it focuses on Bud, Molly and the wife/mother (Mare Winningham) who abandoned them years ago.

The movie does eventually return to its premise, and Bud must decide how to shoulder the burden of choosing the next president. Even then, "Swing Vote" is painstakingly even-handed. Neither donkey nor elephant will go away offended.

The real story, though, is the emergence of Madeline Carroll. The 12-year-old actress orders Costner around like a drill sergeant, verbally bloodies Tucci's nose, and ruthlessly zings Lane. She also serves as both the film's heart and its brains. Among this accomplished cast, Carroll steals the show.

"Swing Vote" won't influence the current election and it doesn't choose sides. It reminds us how important it is to be informed and involved, but mostly, it provides a break from all the real political sparring currently hijacking our lives.

Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.