Rob Edelman: Voting In The Movies

Oct 15, 2018

In a few short weeks, a midterm election will be held across America. Its outcome will be directly linked to the outcome of the most recent presidential election, on so many levels. However, according to various sources, millions of Americans did not even bother casting their vote in 2016. Perhaps 50 per cent of all Americans voted, or maybe it was closer to 60 per cent. But the bottom line is that innumerable voters did not vote, and this despite all the non-stop pre-election coverage in the media.

Well now, how does all this translate cinematically? Why do certain films stress the significance of each and every American voting for the person and persons of his or her choice? Let me cite a movie that dates from 2008. Its title is SWING VOTE, and its plot line grabbed my attention not only because it was released during a presidential election year. The film stars Kevin Costner as Bud Johnson, a loser who is not so much a has-been as a never-was. The one bright spot in his life is his precocious 12-year-old daughter. And as a result of a series of events, the winner of a presidential election will be determined by one vote. That would be his vote and, 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.

Upon hearing the plot line of SWING VOTE, I immediately thought of a similarly-themed film which was released way back in 1939. That film is titled 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. Plus, he has two children instead of one and, here, the election in question is local rather than national. But his one vote will decide the outcome. So of course, the pompous politicians and their handlers cozy up to Vance. One of them is named Iron Hat McCarthy and he is perfectly played by Donald MacBride, a long-forgotten character actor. McCarthy 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 because, as he explains: “They’ll all be votin’ a straight ticket one fine day.”

I could go on and on here. But what SWING VOTE, THE GREAT MAN VOTES, and similar films stress is the significance of voting in each and every election and by each and every American. In the U.S., every vote counts, and there is no excuse whatsoever for any American to become a 2018 version of Bud Johnson or Gregory Vance.

Rob Edelman teaches film history courses at the University at Albany. He has contributed to many arts and baseball-related publications; his latest book, which he co-edited, is From Spring Training To Screen Test: Baseball Players Turned Actors. His frequent collaborator is his wife, fellow WAMC film commentator Audrey Kupferberg.

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