Go to the ant, you lazybones;
consider its ways, and be wise.
Without having any chief
or officer or ruler,
It prepares its food in summer,
and gathers its sustenance in harvest.
How long will you lie there, O lazybones?
When will you rise from your sleep?
… … …
Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler,
and whoever is led astray by it is not wise.
Proverbs 6:6-9 & 20:1
So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbours, for we are members of one another.
Washington Goes to Mr. Smith could well be the subtitle of director Joshua Michael Stern’s populist film about a beer-guzzling middle aged slacker who for ten days captures the attention of the na tion due to a power outage that causes a voting machine to malfunction in his hometown of Texico, New Mexico. You will not have any problem remembering his first name, as this film is guilty of the most blatant product placement that I have seen—guess what beverage Bud drinks all of the time, or what beer advertisements we see all over the place?
Several years earlier Bud’s wife had run off to pursue a singing career, leaving him to raise Molly (well played by newcomer Madeline Carroll) . However, it turns out that it is Molly who is raising Bud, the 12 year-old child being far more responsible than the adult in their household, always waking him up in the morning from his beer-induced stupor so that he can take her to school. Had she been acquainted with the Scriptures, she might well have used some of the maxims from Proverbs to describe her father. Bud is almost always late for his dead-end job at an egg packing plant, and his favorite place after work is the local bar. Molly, on the other hand, does well at school, her essay on citizenship capturing the attention of TV news reporter Kate Madison (Paulette Patton), who is visiting the school. Bud never sees his daughter on the evening news because he is too engrossed in getting drunk, partly due to the fact that he has just been replaced at the egg plant by a Mexican worker—a growing practice there that he calls “Insourcing,” .
Bud also misses his chance to vote in the Presidential election, something that Molly had lectured him on that morning and had elicited from him the promise to meet her at the poling place that evening. When it becomes obvious to his disappointed daughter that he has screwed up again, she takes advantage of an unusual situation. The elderly male attendant is napping, and his female coworker has left the room to take out some trash. There are no voters present, so Molly signs in the book for her father, sneaks into the voting booth, and casts his ballot. It is then that the power goes off for a moment, jammming the machine and leaving Bud’s ballot stuck inside. Molly takes the stub and goes in search of her inebriated father, again swallowing her disappointment that he has let her down one more time.
Meanwhile on the national scene reporters and pundits are breathlessly talking about how close the Presidential race is, the two candidates each garnering a nearly equal number of Electoral College votes so that the outcome will be determined by the voters of New Mexico. Then comes the astounding news that the state-wide vote is a tie, and that the tie-breaker is a vote that is in a machine that malfunctioned in Texico. When two state officials visit to deliver the news to Bud they tell him that he has ten days to cast his vote again. It is Molly, of course, who signals him to go along with the plan. Although the identity of the swing voter is not known for a while, Bud’s identity is soon revealed, and the media hordes swarm around his home like flies on a dead carcass. Confronted at various times by reporters, Bud’s vague relies are subject to scrutiny, with a wisdom or canniness implied that they do not deserve.
The local TV reporter who broke the story of the mystery voter’s identity is Kate Madison, who has lofty ambitions to go national. She cultivates the relationship with Molly that began with her putting Molly on the air reading her essay. Through Molly Kate is able to get to Bud, a scoop that the hundreds of other reporters clamoring outside his home can only envy. The two candidates for President also try to connect with Bud. Republican President Andrew Boone (Kelsey Grammer), guided by his cynical aide Art Crumb (Nathan Lane), and Democratic challenger Donald Greenleaf (Dennis Hopper), accompanied by his manager Martin Fox (Stanley Tucci), travel to the small town to woo him. Bud finds himself attracted to both, and he certainly enjoys the lavish attention and small gifts they offer him. (Of course, there is a scene in which he does sit and have a beer with the President!) When the two politicians mistake his sentiments, each produces TV campaign ads that reverse their previous positions. Republican Boone supports pro-gay marriage and environmentalism, whereas Democrat Greenleaf comes out for abortion and takes rails against illegal immigration. Ouch! So much for political integrity.
When I first saw the film at a pre-release screening I was carried along by the audience’s obvious enthusiasm for the film, as well as by the talented cast. The campaign ads really are funny, and there is one point in which the film suddenly becomes real and moving. The latter is the brief scene in which Molly goes in search for her mother Larissa Johnson and finds, not the glamorous entertainer, but a slovenly wannabe living much like her father, though pretending that her big break in her singing career is about to happen. Mare Winningham, whose brilliant portrayals of caring mothers in the films The War and God Bless the Child made her so memorable, outshines everyone else in the cast.
The nagging question, other than the plausibility of the voting glitch, one is left with is what does a story teach us in when the plot involves what amounts to voter fraud? It is nice that the two politicians come to their senses, and reporter Kate places the need of others before her career ambition, but does the end justify the means? Can we promote democracy, as the film ostensibly claims to do, by condoning an undemocratic act, even though committed by a cute little girl?
There are spoilers in the following.
1) What do you think of Bud Johnson? Compare him to his other populist heroes, such as Ray in Field of Dreams or Lt. John Dunbar in Dances With Wolves. What redeeming qualities do you see in him? Would you vote for him as Father of the Year? Why should he be concerned that the two state officials who visit him are from child welfare?
2) Given a mother that abandoned her and a father sunk into alcoholism, where do you think Molly acquired her sense of responsibility? Do such parents usually produce such a child as Molly?
3) What is Kate Madison’s great ambition? How does she prove herself different from the other reporters that mob the Johnson homestead? Is her decision concerning the truth about Bud a responsible one: that is, do you think that journalistic ethics would support it? What would happen to news coverage if all reporters followed her lead?
4) What do you think of the two Presidential candidates and their advisers? How do the filmmakers attempt to keep things neutral or even-handed in regard to the political parties? How does the film at first play to our stereotypes of politicians? What do you think of their change of heart?
ld you agree that the only realistic scene in the film is Molly’s visit with her mother? How are her illusions and hopes shattered? How can this make her a stronger person?
6) The film is often funny, but does its satire bite very deeply? Compare this film to the 1979 Being There , in which Peter Sellers played the simple-minded “Chauncey Gardner” whose cryptic remarks and long silences are interpreted by wealthy businessmen and politicians as being the fount of wisdom. Note how some of Bud’s sayings are pondered and analyzed by TV pundits for their meaning. (If you have not seen this classic Sellers film, now is the time to remedy this!)
7) What do you think of Kate’s decision? How is this a setting aside not just her own ambition, but her journalistic ethics as well?
8) What do you believe about the film’s premise of the importance of one vote being embedded in a plot that supports voter fraud? How might you have resolved the story had you been writing the plot? How does the film go along with our culture’s easy acceptance of bending or laying aside the truth when it advances one’s cause? Are you comfortable with that that? After writing about spiritual renewal, the apostle Paul admonished the Ephesians, “So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.” How do you reconcile this with the film’s conclusion?