Film Review: Swing StateAn unassuming sendup of far-right fringe types and the media personalities who promote them.
Swing State, marking Jonathan Sheldon’s screenwriting-directing debut, is a mildly diverting film that should have been released in the pre-election months. A political satire—with a hint of Preston Sturges’ Hail the Conquering Hero—it’s an amusing reflection of a time defined by its wild incongruity and cult of personality.
Set in Seattle, Swing State recounts the misadventures of Ethan Smith (Alex Beh), a seriously-in-debt left-leaning DJ who is improbably asked to serve as a guest host on a neo-con radio show when its usual emcee is laid up in the hospital.
The money is wonderful (much needed) and as uncomfortable as Ethan is he accepts the gig creating—in the spirit of off-the-wall performance art—an alternative persona for himself. Sporting a garish plaid jacket, orange bow tie, and silly black-framed glasses, he morphs into Charles Fern, a demented right-winger ranting and raving about the virtues of gun-toting Americans, and comparing Hillary Clinton to Hitler.
Contrary to satirizing the right’s extreme fringes, he unwittingly becomes its spokesperson. The audiences in sync with his loudly espoused (alleged) views love him and so do the radio brass who promise him more money and the prospect of moving on to a far larger market.
It’s moral-dilemma time for Ethan. Let’s face it: He’s enjoying the empowerment (and big bucks), not to mention his personal triumph in rendering a great acting job, pulling off the ultimate con. Nevertheless, he’s in a no-exit bind, especially as his vindictive ex-girlfriend (Taryn Manning) gets wind of what he’s up to and is hell-bent on exposing him. His credibility, career, and budding romance with new girlfriend Julia Davis (Lydia Hearst) would be kaput.
He toys with the idea of coming clean as a preemptive strike, realizing even if he were to do so he would lose Julia, a true idealist and the daughter of a liberal Democrat (Angela Kinsey) who is running for governor. Indeed, Ethan works for her election campaign. Romantic entanglements, idealism, personal ethics and politics collide in zany chaos and a sweet, unanticipated conclusion.
Unlike many satires that can quickly become smug, heavy-handed and sophomoric, for the most part Swing State is low-key and genial, focusing its thematic lens far more on Ethan’s bizarre predicament than on any implied political commentary, though that’s clearly present too and this reviewer wishes there were even less of it.
Watching hunters eating bloody meat with their hands is overkill (no pun intended) and, similarly, so is the film’s spin on an Ann Coulter stand-in, Ann Alcott (Elaine Hendrix). A glamorous media personality and supporter of “intelligent design,” here she’s also an aging virgin who lusts after Ethan, hurling her body on top of his while clad in bikini panties, garter belt, and low-cut bra revealing an abundant bosom. She’s such an easy target, so why bother?
Satire is always a tricky genre, begging the questions what precisely is being satirized, why and how? So often it’s nothing more than the artist recognizing and then pointing at and/or dramatizing (with varying degrees of exaggeration) a convention, cliché, type or public figure in the news. The audience is in on an already existing “in”-joke and the parody serves no purpose short of becoming a moment for collective self-congratulation shared by the creative team and moviegoers.
A film like Swing State that purports to satirize the 2016 election season becomes more complex and challenging, requiring even greater subtlety, as the line between sendup and straightforward reportage is thin if not nonexistent. Nonetheless, Swing State generally scores, and if it’s any indication, Sheldon’s next film should prove winning.
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