Once in a while you see a movie that terrifies you based solely on the poster. It’s wrong, I know, because you shouldn’t pre-judge a movie that you haven’t seen. (Though if that movie has Kevin Costner in it and has Kevin Costner as the producer, then I think it becomes OK to pre-judge just a little.) But when I saw the poster for Swing Vote, I had the feeling that this could be another Man of the Year, a film about how the problem with politics is that the parties can’t put aside their partisan differences, work together for common goals, neither of the candidates stand for anything, blah blah. (This message will be particularly popular in a year where both Presidential candidates in the U.S. claim to be beyond partisanship in one way or another.)
Now, if the movie turns out to be something other than that — nothing I’ve read, like this interview with Costner, implies otherwise, but I don’t want to actually make judgments about a movie I have not seen. What I do want to do is note that the message I’ve just mocked — that partisan differences are hurting us and the candidates don’t really stand for anything (two messages that, if you think about it, are irreconcilable) — is the default message for any Hollywood story about politics, especially in television. In fact, the entire TV/movie view of politics can be summed up in one exchange from The Simpsons‘ famous “Citizen Kang” episode, where, just before they’re sucked into outer space, Bill Clinton and Bob Dole (remember him? he was a lot like John McCain, except he referred to himself in the third person) say this:
Clinton: You know, Senator, being in suspended animation gave me time to think. Partisan politics are tearing our country apart.
Dole: You got a point there, Bill. If you and I are gonna whup these one-eyed space fellas, we’re gonna have to set aside our differences.
Clinton: Together, we can lead America into a new Golden Age.
This is basically the theme of every election-themed episode, even if it’s just one of those “Hero runs for City Council” episodes. Partisan politics are tearing us apart. We need to set aside our differences and work together and everything will be good. And (as “Citizen Kang” finally tells us) there’s no real difference between the candidates except party affiliation.
This assumes that there are agreed-upon goals and that only partisan differences prevent us from achieving them. But I don’t think that makes sense. Partisan differences are often a reflection of disagreements about what the goals should be, or which goals should be prioritized. (Even if we agree on a certain goal, we may disagree on how much money or time should be spent on trying to achieve it, as opposed to something else.) When one party blocks another party from doing something, that’s the way politics is supposed to work: the people who don’t think we should be doing X will try to block X and divert the money to Y instead.
But how many Hollywood movies or shows actually advance the idea that there are legitimate differences about political goals, or that political parties don’t — and shouldn’t — believe exactly the same things? Some, I guess, but I can’t think of many. Even The West Wing kind of fudged that issue as much as it possibly could. The only alternative to the “we can work together” optimism is cynicism; as the writer of “Citizen Kang” mentions on the DVD commentary, Hollywood will often tell you that “it doesn’t matter which of the awful candidates you vote for.” I guess there are three factors at work here:
1) Doing a story about the differences and disagreements involved in politics means actually associating the Good Guy with a specific political position that half the audience will disagree with. This is not good for ratings, at least in theory.
2) Hollywood insiders are, well, a little insular, living in a state where political differences between the Governor and the legislature are less pronounced than other places, so they kind of think that all politics everywhere are just like their own.
3) Setting up a story based on a real political conflict requires a ton of exposition about the issue and the different reasons why it might or might not be a good idea, which can’t be very dramatic. Much better to stick to vague issues.