As this interminably long political season threatens to heat up with the Democratic and Republican Party conventions, and so forth and so on, it is appropriate to cite a new film that lampoons the one-note sniping that has become so much a part of politics, American style. That film, of course, is THE CAMPAIGN, which features Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis as candidates who comically butt heads while facing off in a North Carolina congressional race.
If you are looking for a political satire with real bite, well, you will not find it here. But if you are a fan of Ferrell or Galifianakis, you just might enjoy THE CAMPAIGN. You also will if you can smile at the portrayal of two of the film’s ever-so contemporary characters, who are “inspired” by the Koch brothers. They are billionaire industrialists/power broker siblings, played by Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow, and they attempt to fix the election, all in the name of insuring that they will be able to import bargain-basement foreign laborers to toil in their sweatshop-like factories.
The presence of THE CAMPAIGN in movie theaters brings to mind another film that was released exactly four years ago, just in time for the previous presidential election. That film was SWING VOTE, and it is worth revisiting. Its plot line immediately grabbed my attention back in 2008, and not just because it involves a presidential election.
In SWING VOTE, Kevin Costner stars as Bud Johnson, a loser who is not so much a has-been as a never-was. The one bright spotin his life is his precocious 12-year-old daughter. It just so happens that, as a result of a series of events, the winner of a presidential election will be determined by one vote: His. Of course, one might expect that those in power will pander to Johnson. They want to be winners and not losers because, after all, winning at all costs is the American Way.
However, SWING VOTE offers up the point of view that, in the United States, each and every vote is an important vote. And when I first heard the plot line of SWING VOTE, I immediately thought of a similarly-themed film that was released way back in 1939. That film is THE GREAT MAN VOTES. John Barrymore stars as Gregory Vance, a character who is different from Bud Johnson, but only superficially. Vance is a souse, but he also is Harvard-educated and a former scholar. And he has two children, instead of one. Here, the election in question is local, rather than national, but his one vote will decide the outcome.
So the pompous politicians and their handlers predictably cozy up to Vance. One of them is named Iron Hat McCarty. He is a political operative who possesses, as it is explained, a “useful talent for stuffing ballot boxes.” When we first see him, Iron Hat is handing out candy to children, but this is not because he is fond of children. He does so, he explains, because “They’ll all be votin’ a straight ticket one fine day.”
THE GREAT MAN VOTES was released 73 years ago. And it depicts politicians as little more than skunks. Indeed, if you were to survey the celluloid characterizations of politicians across the decades, all the way up through THE CAMPAIGN, you would find that they primarily have been portrayed as cheats and blowhards.
Still, the message shared by SWING VOTE and THE GREAT MAN VOTES is relevant in a democracy. That message is that, in a democracy, every vote is important. Every vote should count.
Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.
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