Election (Alexander Payne, 1999)

Tracy Flick: “None of this would have happened if Mr. McAllister hadn’t meddled the way he did. He should have just accepted things as they are instead of trying to interfere with destiny. You see, you can’t interfere with destiny. That’s why it’s destiny. And if you try to interfere, the same thing’s going to happen anyway, and you’ll just suffer. “

Jim McAllister: “The sight of Tracy at that moment affected me in a way I can’t fully explain. Part of it was that she was spying; but mostly it was her face.Who knew how high she would climb in life? How many people would suffer because of her? I had to stop her… now!”

Tammy Metzler: “Who cares about this stupid election? We all know it doesn’t matter who gets elected president of Carver. Do you really think it’s going to change anything around here; make one single person smarter or happier or nicer? The only person it does matter to is the one who gets elected. The same pathetic charade happens every year, and everyone makes the same pathetic promises just so they can put it on their transcripts to get into college.”

Paul Metzler: “Looking at my own name on the ballot, I just – I don’t know – I just felt like it’s not right to vote for yourself.”

Plot Summary: A high school teacher tries to prevent an annoying overachiever from becoming the Student Body President.

Review:

Lazy critics place Election into the “teen comedy” genre, but calling Election a teen comedy is a bit like calling Romeo and Juliet a teen romance. Never mind that the story is set in high school, Election is one the most politically astute films ever made, a sharply written, hilariously irreverent satire encompassing just about everything we’ve now come to expect from the election process: negative campaigning; character assassination; voter tampering, spin doctoring, election rigging, underhanded tactics etc. The outcome of the election for Student Body President at Carver High revolves around four principle characters: teacher Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick); dumb jock Paul Metzler (Chris Klein); Paul’s lesbian sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell); and, finally, Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), an obnoxious know-it-all (she’s always the first student to raise her hand in class) with a highly cultivated sense of entitlement whose tireless campaigning, not to mention the fact that, at first, she runs unopposed, seems to make this Little Miss Go Getter a shoe-in for the class presidency (Tracy thinks that God Himself endorses her and that her victory is an obvious matter of destiny).

Mr. McAllister, however, harbors an intense dislike for Tracy, not only because he considers her unbridled ambition downright dangerous but also because he realizes that she, of all people, is destined for the kind of success he will never achieve, and so he hatches a plan, as much out of spite as a sense of political conviction, to upset Tracy’s seemingly inevitable victory. Figuring Klein’s immense campus popularity could snatch victory away from Tracy, Mr. McAllister talks him into running against her, even though he’s a politically ignorant dim-wit. But so what? He’s also a super nice, down-to-earth guy – a regular Joe Six Pack – and, in the end, isn’t that really what the people want in their President? Meanwhile, Tammy further complicates matters by entering the race after her “girlfriend” leaves her for Klein. Tammy, whose campaign speech to the class promoting voter apathy receives a standing ovation, hopes to act as a spoiler, which infuriates Tracy, who considers Tammy a dangerous subversive. Klein, on the other hand, is simply confused by Tammy’s actions, never having comprehended the true nature of her relationship with his new girlfriend.

Interestingly, Payne has each of the four main characters deliver his/her own voice over narration, an inspired device which offers the viewer multiple perspectives from which to view the characters, their motives and their behavior. Allowing each character to express his/her personal take on 1) his/her own character, 2) the other characters, and 3) the circumstances surrounding the election, much of which contradicts what the others say, creates a complex web of shifting perspectives and moral ambiguity, which complicates character motivation in provocative ways. Why, for example, does Mr. McAllister try to undermine Tracy’s campaign? Does he really think upending her candidacy is better for the school, as he himself argues, or is he acting mostly out of spite, as Tracy contends, due to his bitterness over being stuck teaching the same old classes year after year, while students like Tracy are bound to go on to bigger and better things? And to what end is Tracy actually running? Does she genuinely care about improving conditions at the school as she claims, or is she running for purely selfish reasons, namely to put the achievement on her college transcripts, as Tammy suggests during her shrewd campaign speech?

As in his excellent Citizen Ruth, Payne, whose satirical approach is refreshingly even-handed, refuses to cast his characters in simplistic good or bad, black or white terms, or to spare any one character at the expense of another. They all have their good and bad points; none is a clear-cut villain or hero. Paul may be politically ignorant, but he’s also good-looking, athletic and, above all, a genuinely nice guy – so nice (and stupid), in fact, that he doesn’t consider it right to vote for oneself, a sentiment that costs him the election which is decided by one vote! Tammy may be apathetic, but her canny campaign speech reveals a politically savvy mind with genuine insight into human psychology. And while she may not believe in God, she does believe in love, preferably lesbian love with, ironically, the pretty girls at the nearby Catholic school. Mr. McAllister, the civic-minded family man and esteemed teacher of Morals and Ethics, secretly watches porn in his basement (featuring high school cheerleaders!), commits adultery, and, of course, rigs the election. But couldn’t it be argued, as he himself argues, that he does the right thing? Sure, rigging an election is an offense to the Democratic process, but wasn’t he acting for the greater good (of the school, the community, the country and the world!) by trying to derail the political aspirations of Tracy, whose win-at-all-costs tactics progressively become downright ruthless? On the other hand, is Paul’s ignorance, or Tammy’s apathy, or, indeed, Mr. McAllister’s un-Democratic actions any more or less dangerous than Tracy’s cut-throat ruthlessness? Happily, Payne leaves these and other questions for the viewer to answer, and one would imagine that there are as many different reactions to this film and its characters as there are viewers with different moral/political/religious/sexual/behavioral dispositions, ensuring much heated post-film discussion/arguing.

Among this great cast of characters, Witherspoon stands out as Tracy Flick, one of the truly memorable characters of recent cinema. In a sense Tracy is the very embodiment of our American Ideals. With her strong work ethic, lofty ambitions and can-do attitude, Tracy possesses all the traits we as Americans typically admire (even Mr. McAllister acknowledges her admirable qualities), and, on the surface at least, she seems to be the ideal student/citizen, just as Mr. McAllister, three time Teacher of the Year, appears to be the ideal teacher/citizen. But just as Mr. McAllister conceals a dark side behind his outwardly respectable veneer, so Tracy hides darker aspects of her character behind her all-American girl image and go-getter attitude. Using her cute-as-a-button looks, chipper demeanor, and school girlish attire to disguise the vindictive, conniving, power-hungry little egomaniac within, Tracy will do anything to get what she wants and destroy anyone who stands in her way – just the qualities needed, perhaps, to rise to high political office! And, indeed, the last time we (and Mr. McAllister) see Tracy, she’s entering the limousine of a powerful politician. It is tempting to say that Tracy represents American Idealism run amok; but perhaps it is more accurate to say that her darker qualities go hand-in-hand with her more admirable qualities, that they are the corrupt flip-side of her idealism, part and parcel of her success, the essential character traits necessary to bring about the fruition of her political goals. In any case, Tracy Flick is a deliciously wicked comic creation, and Witherspoon, whose failure to garner an Oscar nomination for her performance was a travesty, savors every moment of this juicy role.

Trivia: The ungodly screams heard on the soundtrack whenever Tracy gets really upset, such as when she first realizes that Paul is running against her, is part of Ennio Morricone’s score to an obscure 1966 spaghetti western starring Burt Reynolds called Navajo Joe, which is shown periodically on the Encore Western channel (this is not a recommendation)

3 Responses to “Election (Alexander Payne, 1999)”

  1. You make a great case for this movie. I thought it was
    a good movie , though I’m not quite as enthusiastic about it as you.
    I enjoyed reading your review, however I think it could
    have been shorter. Good work.

  2. Thanks, Hummer. You’re probably right about it being too long. Would you like to become my editor? : )

  3. I just read your review on “Singing In The Rain”. I am
    sending my comment on that movie here because on your page you did not have a place for comments. I think you were right on about “Singing In The Rain”.
    Your review was very well done. Thanks. I loved that movie As far as “Election” I already commented on that.