Monday, March 12, 2007

Learning from "The Man of the Year" (Part I)

...[S]uit the action to the word, the word to the action; with this special observance, that you o'erstep not the modesty of nature. For anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature...Now this overdone or come tardy off, though it make the unskilful laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve; the censure of the which one must in your allowance o'erweigh a whole theatre of others.
-- William Shakespeare,
Hamlet, Act III, Scene II.

A few days ago, JP and I rented Man of the Year; we really enjoyed the movie and found it a much stronger film than the trailer had led us to expect. We'd expected a light comedy and found a light comedy with some heavy-weight observations about the electoral process and personal ethics.

Written and directed by Barry Levinson, the film chronicles the presidential aspirations of Tom Dobbs (played by Robin Williams) Dobbs hosts a political satire comedy show clearly modeled on John Stewart's The Daily Show. Based on the idle remark of an audience member, Dobbs launches an improbable bid for the (U.S.) Presidency.

To set himself apart from the party candidates, Democratic President Kellogg and Republican Senator Mills, Dobbs runs as an Independent and refuses to accept donations from special interests, so he can be a President whose only constituents are the American voters.

To the surprise of everyone, Dobbs wins the election. Later, he learns he owes his victory to a software "glitch," rather than by voter mandate.

Before I continue, let me again say that I think this is a really good film, one well worth watching. If you've not seen it yet (and have a stake or interest in the forthcoming election), please set aside an evening to enjoy Robin Williams as he lays out all the common sense reasons why our current process is fractured, if not outright broken. (The debate scene is particularly enjoyable.)

However, the film contains a major problem...namely, the "glitch" that supposedly allows Dobbs to win the election.

During the course of the story, we learn that this particular is the first to be conducted using electronic voting machines. Delacroy, the company that makes the voting machines, is awarded a contract to supply machines to every district, polling place, and venue. As a result of this coup, Delacroy stands to close a major international deal...provided the Presidential election runs smoothly.

Eleanor Green, played by Laura Linney, is a quality assurance tester for Delacroy and she detects a problem with voting machines software prior to the election. She dutifully reports her findings to management...and management promptly suppresses her findings to avoid impacting the value of the company's stock on the eve of the election.

The election proceeds and Dobbs wins every state where he's been able to get on the ballot. States running just the two party candidates go to the incumbent, President Kellogg. Eleanor tries to get management to own up to the fact that the wrong man got elected. Instead, she's set up and fired.

She decides she needs to tell Dobbs about the problem. While trying to do so, she continues to study the voting machines to better understand the nature of the problem. Eventually, she realizes that the "glitch" (which is never called a "bug," by the way) is a sorting problem. When all of the names on the ballot contain double letters, such as Dobbs, Kellogg, and Mills, the voting machine returns the name that appears first alphabetically., rather than the name of the candidate that received the most votes. Thus, Dobbs wins his states due to the double-B's in his name and Kellogg wins his states because of the double-G's.

It's a rather clever little plot device. It's subtle and hard to detect, just as a bug of this magnitude should be. Levinson a good writer and he's clearly spent some time thinking up what seems to be a plausible reason why the machines mistakenly elect Dobbs.

And no one (least of all me) is going to say that Levinson isn't a good filmmaker or writer. He's been nominated for multiple Oscars, Emmy's, and so on. He's written and/or directed some of the most enjoyable movies of the last twenty five years, including Bugsy, Rain Man, Diner, Wag the Dog, and so on. Levinson clearly knows how to create a good movie and Man of the Year is no exception.

However, it doesn't seem that Levinson is much of a computer programmer. I'll explain why in tomorrow's post.

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Blogger Jane Poe (aka Deborah) said...

It was a good movie & I'd cast a vote if Jon Stewart ran!! xx, JP

7:38 PM  
Blogger paris parfait said...

Fascinating stuff! And I'm with JP about Jon Stewart. :)

1:53 PM  

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