The movie opens in a documentary style, with Christopher Walken being interviewed about "what happened" - it's unclear when this interview is taking place, but it's obviously after events in the movie have all played out. Walken tells the interviewer that his friend and client, Tom Dobbs (Robin Williams) never believed he had a chance to win the election and had no idea the electoral system was so vulnerable. Basically, this opening gives away the entire movie, since you quickly realize that Dobbs does win the election against expectations, but also does not actually become president.
The movie jarringly departs from this documentary format and jumps back in time to Dobbs on the set of his TV show -- which is a version of John Stewart's The Daily Show. Dobbs warms up his audience with jokes -- very stale Robin Williams jokes. The studio audience howls with laughter, establishing that Dobbs is a well-loved and popular comedian in this world. He's mantra is basically that neither party in Washington is doing anything for the people and that both the Republicans and Democrats are self-serving slaves to lobbyists and big business. A young Asian woman in the audience stands up and asks Dobbs why he doesn't run for President himself. Walken then narrates that this was a historic moment that no one appreciated at the time, since the comment the woman made was almost immediately forgotten - by everyone but Dobbs. Later in his TV show, Dobbs is interviewing an unidentified politico, John Stewart-style, when Dobbs himself brings up the woman's comment on the air: "A woman today suggested I run for President myself, and that's looking like not so crazy of an idea".
The producers of the show are soon inundated with millions of emails supporting the idea of Dobbs running for President. Being a television production staff, they don't really know what to do with this. It's not clear what Dobbs' motives are: he is clearly a good person, but he knows he's just a comedian. He doesn't really want to be President, the way some men and women spend every waking moment from childhood dreaming about the Oval Office. Dobbs just thinks Washington is full of do-nothings spitting out the same garbage election after election - and Dobbs wants to shake things up a bit.
Without really consulting anyone, Dobbs makes an announcement on one of his later TV broadcasts that he will be petitioning to be added to the ballot to run for President of the United States in as many states as possible. In the system currently in place in the United States, it's often hard for independent candidates to get on ballots to run for a high office like the Presidency. Dobbs ultimately gets onto the ballot on 13 states (including big electoral college prizes like Ohio, Florida, New York, the Carolinas, California, etc.). His television team becomes a traveling political team, complete with large DOBBS FOR PRESIDENT campaign luxury bus (the ubiquitous touring vehicle of most campaigns).
The President of the United States in this movie is a Democrat named Kellogg, running against a Republican US Senator named Mills. Their names are important later, once Dobbs is thrown into the mix as an independent candidate.
The movie then shifts gears and styles again, focusing on a conspiracy engulfing the Delacroy Corporation, the voting systems company that's a thinly veiled version of the Diebolt Corporation, which really manufactures touch-screen voting machines. Delacroy was awarded the federal contract to install touch-screen, multi-language for the upcoming Presidential election in the United States. Delacroy's founder is a generic computer tycoon who sits in his office watching his stock prices rise because of the positive attention his voting system has been getting in the lead up to the election. This man, and his company, stands to make millions of dollars from the election and will do anything he can to ensure the success of his software and machines.
Enter Laura Linney: she plays a computer tech named Elanore Green who performs her job too well for Delacroy's liking. Green runs tests on the voting system late into the night, realizing there is something seriously wrong with the machines. No matter how many people vote for the challenger, Mills, in the test elections she runs, the incumbent President Kellogg always wins the election. Even if Green sits at the computer and personally votes for Mills three times more than she votes for Kellogg, the Delacroy system delivers the election to Kellogg every time. There is a serious flaw in the system that favors the incumbent President (see the 2004 election in Ohio for how this played out in real life).
Green warns the CEO of Delacroy about this in an email, but he disregards her. Too much is at stake for the company and Delacroy cannot afford to take its system off line this close to the election. The choice is made to ignore Green and hope she does not make waves. Delacroy is not deliberately trying to throw the election to Kellogg: but it is deliberately ignoring a problem with its software because it knows revealing the problem would destroy the company. There is a huge deal on the horizon to take the Delacroy system to Europe and other parts of the world if it succeeds in the US, so greed is the motivator here.
As the election nears, Dobbs is running a distant third in the elections. He's also completely re-invented himself, for the worse, He gives boring, long winded speeches about how terrible the Republicans and Democrats both are, but that's not what people want to hear from him. They come to see his witty political humor and irreverent take on the world of politics, not to hear the same speeches the other two candidates always give (about how much they love their wives and families, and American values, and how the other candidate will raise taxes, etc.). Dobbs' staff tries to convince him to return to form, but he brushes them off, saying he needs to be "serious" because this is a serious campaign and he has taken a hiatus from his show to get his message out.
While on the campaign bus heading to Chicago for an event, the Dobbs team learns that the national election committee has decided that Dobbs should be included in the upcoming presidential debate because he has proven himself to be a serious contender for votes - a development that makes Dobbs believe his serious approach is the right one, much to the chagrin of his staff, including Lewis Black (who plays a writer on Dobbs' show who keeps insisting Dobbs work in a joke or two into his boring speeches).
Dobbs is, at heart, a comedian, though. He can't help himself. While on the road, he launches into comedic riffs that the people around him find absolutely side-splitting: the audience of the film itself has heard most of these jokes before. Dobbs jokes around about needing to find a First Lady before the election, seeing as he is the only bachelor candidate (he has an ex-wife who he makes fun of occasionally, though). When he is goofing around and riffing with his staff at a diner, they once again insist he show some of his humor in the debates, and he once again claims he needs to be serious and non-comedic about all of this.
The debate arrives and Dobbs takes the stage with President Kellogg and Senator Mills. The moderator of the debates is an ineffective TV news anchor type who quickly loses control of the situation when Dobbs, out of nowhere, decides he should be more animated and comedic in the debate. This comes as a great surprise to his staff, who are watching in a control room. They cheer that Dobbs is seizing the opportunity to take over the debate. He criticizes the Republican candidate for giving lip service to hydrogen fuel cells and better energy policies because this Senator takes large campaign contributions from big oil and auto companies. He criticizes the President for being hypocritical as well. Then, he breaks all rules of the debate, leaves his podium, and launches into a diatribe about everything he believes is wrong about the American political system. The audience quietly cheers him as his anger and verve grow. The moderator of the debate desperately tries to regain control by asking Dobbs to be quiet and return to his podium. The network execs broadcasting the debate repeatedly ask the moderator to reign Dobbs in, but she's hopeless. Finally, Dobbs just completely drowns the moderator out and gets the audience completely on his side with the exchange of: Mr. Dobbs, you are making a mockery of this debate...to which Dobbs replies, "This debate was a mockery long before I got here". Insert wild cheers here.
Post-debate, Dobbs is the big winner. The media falls all over him and Dobbs vows to run a completely transparent campaign where every question will be answered 100% honestly. He admits he smoked marijuana, he admits he had sex with a prostitute (who refunded his money because he was so bad), he admits he only married his wife because he felt sorry for standing her up at a movie once, and he notifies the press that he recently passed gas in their midst. The media love this (the honesty, not the flatulence).
Real life talking heads like James Carville, Chris Matthews, etc. cameo -- talking about Dobbs and his "tell the truth" campaign. Dobbs is still a distant third in all polls, garnering only 17% of the vote, but he is shaking up the campaign. Dobbs' staff know he has no chance of winning the presidency, but they are proud of the way he is electrifying the public. There are numerous shots of ordinary people watching TV, seeing Dobbs in action, and getting excited about the election.
Meanwhile, Green is still at Delacroy running her computer models, wondering why nothing has been fixed since she sent the email advising her superiors that the election could be compromised. There are shots of Green watching Dobbs on TV, where she obviously likes Dobbs a lot by the look in her eyes. This is called foreshadowing.
The night of the election takes place, and Green attends an election results party at Delacroy headquarters, She tells her friend that the election will be flawed and that the voting system does not work. But, as she watches the results coming in, she says, "Something is wrong. Kellogg should be winning". As it turns out, Dobbs starts winning various states, quite unexpectedly. Green confronts the CEO of Delacroy and is immediately accosted by Jeff Goldblum, who is a henchman of the CEO. Goldblum accuses Green of wanting to destroy Delacroy and put a thousand people out of work. He says that it does not matter who actually becomes President, as long as the people believe they chose someone and can feel good about their vote being counted. It's a sick argument he makes: the illusion of democracy is much more important than actual democracy. Goldblum tells Green that if she reveals anything about the glitch in the Delacroy system, she will not only destroy the company, but will destroy people's faith in democracy. He also vaguely threatens Green to remain quiet. She slinks away to get drunk at the bar, not knowing what to do, but feeling guilty that the election is illegitimate and she is the only one who can bring the truth to light.
Walken, Dobbs' manager, suffers a massive heart attack at this time and is rushed to the hospital. Dobbs goes to the emergency room with him, and together they watch the election results pour in. Chris Matthews from MSNBC announces the results, with Dobbs winning Virginia and New Jersey -- a red and a blue state. Walken says this is the happiest day of his life, and he can't even stay up for it (because he is on an IV drip and breathing machine because of his heart attack). Walken tells Dobbs that there is no way he will win, but doing better than anyone expected is a huge coup for him.
Dobbs does win the election, though, and this is signified by a huge Secret Service contingent barging into the hospital the moment President Kellogg concedes the election. Tom Dobbs, comedian, is the new President-Elect of the United States of America. One Secret Service agent tells Dobbs, "I've always loved your work".
Back in Chicago, Green returns to her home to watch the election results alone. An intruder breaks in, wrestles her to the ground, and shoots her full of something nasty with a syringe. She passes out.
Dobbs faces the press the next morning and starts answering questions about who will be in his cabinet - he makes a bad joke that he will fill his cabinet with lesbians, not because they will do a better job, but because people will be fascinated by what they could be up to behind closed doors. It's not a funny joke at all, but everyone in the movie laughs hysterically -- this happens every time Tom Dobbs tells a joke in the movie, to reaffirm what a popular comedian Dobbs is.
When Green wakes up in the morning, she goes to work and is clearly out of it. She has a bizarre encounter with the man at the coffee station in the Delacroy lobby. Laura Linney is a great actress and is very good in what could have been a bad scene. She has a total meltdown, spills coffee everywhere, and has to be removed from the building by the paramedics. When she gets to the hospital, a toxicologist announces that they found cocaine, heroin, marijuana, GHD, LSD, and a half dozen more narcotics and barbituates in her system. Her friend, sitting at her side, looks sickened by her. Green tries to convince him that someone shot drugs into her to discredit her, but he does not believe her. He just tells her that he will help her get treatment. The movie loses the audience at this point, by and large, because it's ridiculous that everyone falls for this drug setup gimmick.
Dobbs begins preparations to become the next President of the United States. He visits Congress dressed up like George Washington to do a stand up routine. Congress loves this, and its members take time away from visiting with lobbyists to actually come down to the floor and watch Dobbs' performance.
Green has been fired for drug abuse and moves into a no-tell motel. Delacroy, stupidly, does not delete her security clearance, so she uses a laptop to try and crack the code for how exactly the election was corrupted. In the meantime, she gets the idea of impersonating an FBI agent to get close to Dobbs and let him know that the election was rigged. She believes that Dobbs will do the right thing because she knows he is a good person - no one else will believe her, but Dobbs will.
Green makes her move at a party Dobbs throws for Walen's birthday. She fumbles the FBI impersonation and looks like a crazy person, but Dobbs thinks she's attractive and asks her to dance at the party. She tries to tell him about the election, but doesn't know how to do it. Green gets multiple chances to tell Dobbs about this over the next few scenes, but can never get the words out. Dobbs thinks she has a drug problem and treats her with kid gloves, promising to get her help. Dobbs even calls the CEO of Delacroy to ask him if Green was employed there -- the answer Dobbs gets is very suspicious, since Delacroy is trying very actively to find Green and silence her. This supposedly brilliant CEO still hasn't realized that Green still has her security clearance as well.
Dobbs and Green become very friendly -- with Green invited to a paint ball game and also to Dobbs' Thanksgiving celebration. At Thanksgiving, Green finally tells Dobbs that he is not the duly elected next President. Dobbs immediately believes her. Green leaves, vowing to figure out what really happened with the election, but promises to leave it up to Dobbs when it comes to bringing this information out into the open. Green is sad because she realizes that Dobbs will probably make a great President, even if he was not really elected. She does not know if she made the right decision in telling him -- and calls her friend from work to ask him if she made the right decision. Her friend betrays her and gives a copy of their conversation to the CEO of Delacroy. Dobbs, in the meantime, spends time with Walken asking him what he should do. Walken wants him to become President, while Dobbs says he needs to bring the truth to light.
Green finally cracks the Delacroy computer code while watching Wheel of Fortune, when a puzzle has two letter Ls side by side. She then realizes that Kellogg, Mills, and Dobbs are all names with double letters in them and that the computer program, for some reason, gives the most votes to the person with a set of double letters in it, based on what letter that is. Kellogg beat Mills in a one on one race because Kellogg has a set of double Ls and a set of double Gs while Mills only has a set of double Ls. Dobbs won because his set of double Bs trumped the double Ls and double Gs. Green starts murmuring a mantra of: double G before double L and double B before double G over and over again, realizing she has cracked the flaw in the computer program. She does not print any of this out or copy any sort of evidence, however.
Delacroy agents come to the motel to either kill or kidnap Green to keep her from telling the truth. They realize she cracked the computer code. Delacroy then plans a big announcement the next morning that Green is a dangerous drug addict who tried to tamper with the election, but that the Delacroy system was actually tamper proof and that Dobbs indeed was the winner. This trumps a press conference that Dobbs planned to reveal the truth to the public. Dobbs does not know what to do now -- and his advisors tell him that Green is a crazy person who cannot be believed.
Green fortuitously was getting a soda while the Delacroy people were in her room and so she escapes in a PT Cruiser -- she heads to a shopping mall to blend into a crowd. Delacroy agents hunt her down. Green tries reaching Dobbs on his cell phone but gets cut off when her cell battery dies. She tries to buy a charger at the mall, but her phone is a year old and they don't carry that model anymore. The movie slips into a sort of Pelican Brief thriller for a while, with Green trying to escape Delacroy agents who want to kidnap/kill her. Green gets caught and a man tries to force her into a van, but she clobbers him with the car door. She then drives away and tries to reach Dobbs on the phone again to tell him about the computer code. She tries using phone booths, but the first one she tries is deactivated. While she's in the second phone booth, a Delacroy agent drives his car into the phone booth to try to kill her. Dobbs does not know why she hung up on him again -- he's on his way to board a private plane to cameo on Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update with Tina Fey and Amy Pohler. This is Dobbs' damage control for the embarrassment Green's drug story has caused his team -- he is going on SNL and to downplay it all.
Before Dobbs gets on the plane to NYC, his staff see a news report about Green being almost killed in a freak car accident. Dobbs then believes she was telling the truth about Delacroy trying to kill her. He orders his limo to the scene of the accident and arrives just as Green is loaded into an ambulance. Before she passes out, she mumbles "double B before double G before double L" and he has no idea what she is talking about, but knows she has cracked the code to the election problem. Green goes to the hospital while Dobbs heads to NYC. Dobbs tells Walken that he must do the right thing, while Walken again tries to convince him that Green is a crazy person.
In NYC, Dobbs goes on Weekend Update and plays along with scripted material for a minute, but then breaks from the cue cards and announces that he is not actually the President-Elect. He then explains the entire movie in three minutes -- saying Delacroy did not deliberately rig the election, but it covered up the computer era Green discovered. Dobbs announces there will be a new election and he will not take part in it. Amy Pohler has a funny line where she says, "I don't know what to say. Normally we just read fake news and tell jokes, not announce real news and non-jokes".
Time magazine proclaims Dobbs "Man of the Year" for his honesty in bringing the scandal to light and refusing the Presidency.
President Kellogg wins the re-election. Dobbs becomes more popular as a TV host than ever before. Green becomes his executive producer on his show. The CEO of Delacroy and Jeff Goldblum go to prison for fraud. The movie ends with narration that says President Kellogg was a better President in his second term - not great, but better - because of Tom Dobbs shaking up the system. The movie leaves the audience with the feeling that we are all supposed to question electronic voting and what our politicians says, because it is up to us to question and hold them accountable when they don't want to be questioned or held accountable.
*CUT TO THE CHASE*
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Tom Dobbs (Robin Williams), a political comedian (a la Jon Stewart) decides to run for the presidency. He wins due to a glitch in the computer. Instead of sliding it under the rug, he announces this glitch and steps down, becoming even more famous and returning to his tv show. TIME magazine names him "Man of the Year," hence the title.
Elenor Green (Laura Linney) works for the company that created the electronic voting program. She discovers the glitch and is persecuted until the very end. She becomes Dobbs' producer/lover.
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