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November, 2004, New Mexico. Bud is a slacker with one good thing in his life, his engaging fifth-grade daughter Molly. On election day, Bud is supposed to meet her at the polling place. When he doesn't show, she sneaks a ballot and is about to vote when the power goes off. It turns out that New Mexico's electoral votes will decide the contest, and there it's tied with one vote needing recasting - Bud's. The world's media and both presidential candidates, including the current President, descend on Bud in anticipation of his re-vote in two weeks. Can the clueless Bud, even with the help of Molly and a local TV reporter, handle this responsibility? Written by
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I'm going to go ahead and assume that it's not an easy task to make a crowd-pleasing movie centered on politics that goes to such strenuous efforts to be non-partisan and maybe chalk up my dissatisfaction with the movie to that. Then again, it might also have something to do with a critical decision that they made in how to end the movie, which is sure to make every single solitary person who watches it throw up their arms in disgust.
But the movie is not about who wins the presidency, it's about the pure chaos of the American political system and its millions of weaknesses and faults. Sure, the premise of a presidential election coming down to a single vote is as preposterous as they come, but man if this movie doesn't get you thinking critically about the electoral process then it's safe to assume that probably nothing ever will.
Kevin Costner plays Bud, an American nobody from New Mexico who has never done anything with his life except have a daughter with a delusional drug addict who thinks she has a big singing career in her near future. He works as an egg inspector at an egg packaging plant, and he and his co-workers mourn the loss of their friends' (and soon, their own) jobs to "insourcing," the process of bringing Mexicans in to take their jobs rather than ship the factory and all those egg-laying chickens to Mexico.
Bud staggers through life in a drunken daze most of the time, routinely letting down his daughter Molly (Madeline Carroll), who raises him like a child. She gets him out of bed in the morning, criticizes his laziness and irresponsibility, reminds him to vote because it's part of a school project that she has to do, and through sighs of exasperation attempts to keep him at least a little bit in line. And of course it's the only thing in life that she fails at. When Bud gets drunk rather than show up to vote, she manages to almost cast his vote herself due to the sleepy voting booth security of beautiful Texico, New Mexico, which Google Earth has just informed me is a real place. Population 1,065.
In a clever plot development, it turns out that Bud's vote didn't go completely through but it appeared that he was there, so he is given another opportunity to cast his vote. Not right away, mind you, even though he evidently already tried to vote and thus probably had his mind made up. No, he is given ten days before he has to vote, thus providing plenty of time for a movie to happen.
Young Madeline Carroll steals most of the scenes that she's in as Bud's daughter, so it's interesting that her character is one of the biggest weak points in the movie, the other one being her dad. Bud is supposed to be a typical American, but I just saw a drifting drunk who never did anything with his life and never would have had he not been forced to. It's true that the vast majority of Americans live lives that are closer to Bud's than President Boone's (Kelsey Grammar), but does he have to be a TOTAL loser? How about just making him be a likable, regular guy? Like the guy he played in Field of Dreams? When I imagine the average American, I imagine something like Ray Kinsella. Although maybe with a slightly smaller house and less whispering from the sky.
The other problem is that the screenwriters overshot the character of Molly by about 160 IQ points. So much for the average American, right? This girl writes a school essay that doesn't merit a special award from the principal to show her dad, it grants her NATIONAL TELEVISED RECOGNITION. But to be honest, I had more of a problem with the fact that not only does she wake her deadbeat dad up in the morning so he could take her to school, she also treks to the bar and, finding him passed out in his truck when he should have been voting, she pushes him over and then drives him home herself. She's about 11 years old.
But where the movie succeeds is as a scathing revelation about certain realities of the American electoral process, such as the electoral college, which simplifies the vote-counting process even while massively distorting the actual numbers of who voted for who. The whole movie is about how one man's vote really does matter, but it leaves you with the feeling that you are supposed to forget that once he votes, every single vote in his state for the other candidate WON'T matter anymore, because they'll be switched to the other candidate. Isn't it interesting how that works? Can't we just count every single vote and award each candidate one huge number of individual votes? Seems a little more accurate to me.
Anyway, I do appreciate the way the movie highlights the fact that both sides, Republican and Democrat, are equally willing to stoop to any level and do absolutely whatever it takes to win, and that no one is above hitting below the belt and making hugely unethical decisions. There is a lot that needs to be changed in American politics, and even while clearly being based on the Election of 2000, one of the most controversial in American history, it calls those things to attention without ever even hinting that either side is right or wrong. The movie insists that America is the greatest country in the world but that in some ways, we're doing it all wrong, but the fact that a movie like this has the freedom to get made proves that even though we haven't reached a level of pure cohesive harmony, underneath all of our imperfections is a clear desire to get there.
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