Tuesday, January 20, 2009

DVDebuts -- Not quite politics-as-usual: SWING VOTE and CHOOSE CONNOR

Two political films -- one a big-deal mainstream movie (SWING VOTE), the other a tiny independent (CHOOSE CONNOR) -- arrived and sank theatrically last year and have recently made the move to DVD, where they'll probably receive a lot more attention. Deservedly. One's as dark as the other is light (and, yes, slight 'n bright) but both should be seen, mulled over and argued about. How did they get so lost in last year's shuffle?

Swing Vote was released nationwide in August, when the Presidential campaign was going into overdrive; Choose Connor had its limited released in NYC, L.A. and DC mid-October, as voters were counting down the days till the election. Fear, I think, was what most of America was currently experiencing -- on the Democratic side that another loss would set our country back irretrievably, on the Republican that the power held so strongly and for so long was about to be lost. By this time, no one one wanted to hear Swing Vote's message about democracy and the importance of the ballot box nor feel Choose Connor's decency-corrupted punch to the solar plexus. Everyone simply stayed glued to the polls, learning who was leading or behind on any given day: If your choice pulled ahead, some of the fear abated. Now that the election's come and gone, as bad as things still look on so many fronts, we can at least begin to think straight (or gay, if that's your bag) once again.

Joshua Michael Stern's (director and co-writer with Jason Richman) Swing Vote posits a couldn't-really-happen scenario in which a Presidential contest comes down to a single state (sound familiar?) and then to one precinct and a single vote. Considering how badly behaved have been so many of the country's voting machines over the past decade (Diebold, anyone?), a believability objection based on anything to do with votes is hereby tossed out. Anyway, this is a fantasy, as has been every feel-good political movie in history -- Meet John Doe, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, State of the Union and all the other glorious Capra-corn. Swing Vote is simply another in the long line of "political" films in which the right people (some of the wrong ones, too) give over to their better nature. Certain scenes in the film may also recall Ace in the Hole, but without Billy Wilder's nasty edge.

What makes this Kevin Costner film (in which the star is loose and louche, a little tubby but still very sexy) so much fun is that when it all comes down to one vote, everything changes, even as it remains business-as-usual. Both parties -- their candidates and PR flacks -- pull the same stunts usually directed to entire constituencies but here offered to just one man. Funniest are several TV commercials made simply to show the Costner character that the candidate endorses his view. Beliefs, even set-in-stone policies, shift with the wind. It's the final, feel-good portion of the film that I believe set a few too many teeth on edge. Swing Vote would have us believe that both parties are finally able think clearly and do the right thing for the American people. This, after the last eight years? With fundamentalist thinking and acting from our administration and Nazi-lock-step agreement from a Republican Congress (until power began to fade: only then, suddenly, did it understand compromise), the movie's idea of non-partisan behavior seems too quaint by half. Still, this is fantasy. And if we're willing to accept it in our romantic comedies, action movies and sci-fi/horror, why not in political films? So take care, viewer: If you give over to Swing Vote, even a little, the ending will leave you feeling very good indeed.

Choose Connor, on the other hand, is having none of this. Practically a user's manual on how to first co-opt and then corrupt a likeable, if naive, young man who wants to make certain that his politicians do the right thing, writer/director Luke Eberl's movie is whip-smart about people and politics. That Eberl was just 20 when he wrote and then directed his film I find downright uncanny. He's cast it well, too. Steven Weber (above, left) is terrific as the politician, exuding exactly the right mix of charm, occasional honesty and steel innards. Alex D. Linz (above, right) as his acolyte makes a perfect foil; you can believe his every word, idea and stance. As the pivotal character Caleb, who bridges Weber's world to that of Linz, Escher Holloway (below) possesses the kind of quiet charisma that should have us seeing much more of him in future.

The downside of being a very young writer/director is that you want to sometimes stuff in more than your movie can handle. Choose Connor is so good for so long in simply showing us how small compromises deaden souls even as they launch careers that Eberl did not need to add his big "secret" to the mix. Doing so turns drama into melodrama, intelligence into overkill and throws the film off balance. And yet: The culmination of this "event," which has been foreshadowed nicely as the film moves along, clarifies and enhances the sexual character of the two young men and helps focus the film, if briefly, on their fraught but genuinely interesting relationship. And once he's introduced his over-the-top hook, the writer/director manages to navigate the remainder of his movie surprisingly well, leaving us and his "hero" in an anything-but-feel-good place. Is Choose Connor a cynical film, as some critics have said? I don't think so. In too many important ways, it is too close to reality for a dismissal this easy and flippant. See it, because despite its stumble, the film is as good or better than anything else we've been offered politically of late.

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