It’s all image not ideas these days, y’know?

Film Reading through the professional reviews of Joshua Michael Stern’s political satire Swing Vote, it’s fairly remarkable how little Frank Capra’s name is mentioned. I’d expected nearly every writer to have used the word Capresque somewhere, particularly since, if you’ve seen half of the director’s films (as they should have), you’d very clearly recognise the formula being deployed here of an everyman suddenly thrust into the position of mattering on a national scale and essaying how they cope when they’re being taken advantage of by those who’ve enjoyed the privileges they haven’t. It’s Meet John Doe, it’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, it’s Mr Smith Goes To Washington, it’s the populist hope that the ordinary bloke can still mean something, can make a difference.

Swing Vote’s ordinary bloke is deadbeat dad Kevin Costner (miscast in a role which would have been played by Adam Sandler five years ago), who through a narrative slight of hand becomes the only voter in the country who can decide the presidency (the circumstances through which this occurs go virtually unexplained at least on a national scale). He’s an independent, a disaffected voter who doesn’t care one way or other who leads the country, and the film largely concerns itself with the process the candidates go through in order to secure his support, the Washington circus pitching up outside his trailer as like Doe and Smith he goes on the j-word towards political awareness.

For a film about such big choices, it’s a shame that Stern and fellow screenwriter Jason Richman are unable to decide what their film should be. Is it a straight down the line bit of Capracorn or a knowing send-up? On the one hand, the scenes featuring Costner’s domestic life in which he’s largely taken care of by his hyperintelligent tweenie daughter are perfectly judged and have the ring of modern Capraeque master Gary Ross (Dave, Pleasantville, Seabiscuit) in their expression of the loss of innocence and the American dream. The daughter is played by the fabulous Madeline Carroll who steals most of her scenes including a rather good moment in which she faces down POTUS’s political advisor Stanley Tucci across a conference table.

Sadly the politico material looks like it’s drifted in from another film and unfortunately it’s more Wag The Dog or W than The American President or The West Wing. The intention seems to be to make both candidates look fairly stupid – Grammer is in full Frasier mode – and pliable as their respective political advisors Tucci and Nathan Lane lead them to toss out their ideological concerns in a desperate attempt to grab Costner’s vote. But none of this ever rings true and has an artificiality which undercuts whatever humour might be evident in seeing the Democrats making pro-choice ads or the Republicans supporting the environment.

And if all of that sounds a bit old hat anyway, it’s because it’s also the thematic underpinning of the great old 70s film The Candidate in which Robert Redford’s empty suit succeeded in swaying the electorate despite having few specific policies. It’s all image not ideas these days, y’know? Well, yes. Except that film and Capra’s work also took a polemical point of view (arguably on either side of the political divide) whereas Swing Vote is desperate not to choose. If Stern is attempting to show that there’s not much between the candidates as a way of demonstrating Costner’s independent perspective then he succeeds and manages not to alienate many audience members in the process. Hail the blanding out of modern filmmaking.

As the film grinds predictably onward and the circus absorbs Costner and his daughter’s life, it becomes clearer that the filmmakers aren’t interested in breaking from the Capra formula and just about every scene you’d expect to see is here, right down to the local reporter (Jean Arthur then, Paula Patton now) undergoing an ethical crisis and Costner’s big speech in which he demonstrates a hitherto unseen verbal dexterity. So closely is the template followed in fact that the final end is exactly how the great old director might have completed one of his films, on what seems like a moment of uncertainty. Except, nothing is uncertain in a Capra film, whereas once again in Swing Vote it looks as though the filmmakers have copped-out, saving themselves from making yet another choice.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed Swing Vote. I don't have to spend my time trying to come up with a review of the movie. The only issue for me is whether I'd buy it for my collection or not and I bought this movie and will watch it again and again and share it with my friends and family.