We've just finished one of the more tedious election cycles in modern history. It was chock-full of supposed red waves, made for television doctors, election skeptics, and a whole host of other bizarre happenings. And me, being the political junkie that I am, enjoyed every minute of this year's circus. But let's take a step back and look at one of the greatest elections in cinema history, and I'm not talking about Jimmy Stewart and his filibuster in "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington" or John Travolta doing his best Bill Clinton impression in "Primary Colors," but rather, the election of Tracy Flick to the office of class president of George Washington Carver High in Alexander Payne's 1999 high school comedy, "Election."
"Election" is actually primarily the story of high school civics teacher Jim McAllister, played by Matthew Broderick. For those of you familiar with '80s comedy, you might recall that Broderick is no stranger to high schools as he played the titular character in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," a cool, mischievous high schooler who skips school to chum around with his friends in Chicago.
In "Election," karma finds Broderick. He is plagued by Tracy, an overachieving coed played by Reese Witherspoon. She wants to be class president and doesn't care who she has to cut down to get there. McAllister sees this toxic trait in Tracy, and he decides to try to teach her a lesson by recruiting the school's most popular jock to run against her. He even, at one point, tries rigging the election. On top of all the trouble the teacher finds himself in, all he gets is a nasty bee sting to the eye.
In the late '90s there seemed to be a plethora of high school comedies -- a lot of them forgettable -- but movies like "Election" and "Rushmore" really stood ahead of the class for their darker, dryer sense of humor. Early on in the movie we see that Tracy recently had an inappropriate relationship with one of her other teachers, which ends with that teacher comedically sobbing to the principal, "But we're in love."
And it's bizarre to see how much hatred McAllister has toward young Tracy. His every negative thought is accompanied by a Spaghetti Western score full of guttural chanting. And we get to see his home life fall apart, as he runs around bumbling, trying to have his own affair.
The movie opens up with McAllister trying to explain the difference between ethics and morals; in fact, there are several times throughout the movie where he attempts to describe the difference, but each time he gets interrupted. Each character runs into a dilemma where they have to choose between an ethical obligation or a moral course of action.
For McAllister, it's when he counts the ballots to find Tracy has won by a single vote. So he has to decide whether or not to toss two Tracy-votes in the trash. Now is it ethical to manipulate a student election? Of course not. But is it moral to teach Tracy a lesson in hopes that a loss would help her gain some perspective and potentially become a better person? That's a more difficult question to answer.
The acting and the writing are top-notch. The movie is based on Tom Perrotta's 1998 novel of the same name, but there are plenty of changes to make the movie have its own personality, such as changing the setting to rural America, specifically Nebraska, which is Payne's home state. And the ending is changed quite a bit, giving McAllister one last act of defiance -- that we cheer for, and then immediately regret that we cheered for such a childish act. The cast is fun and quirky, but Witherspoon really stands out. She gives a perfect performance -- despite having an annoying relentless drive and obnoxious self-confidence, the character somehow remains sympathetic. It's no wonder that her career really took off during this period of time, leading to an Oscar win for "Walk the Line."
Out of the many times that I've seen this movie, I've never really considered it a political movie, but maybe I should have. Payne has made several films that are inherently political. His first feature, "Citizen Ruth," is probably the funniest abortion movie ever made, as a glue sniffing pregnant Laura Dern finds herself being courted by pro-life and pro-choice groups. One of Payne's more recent films, "Downsizing," examines human impact on the environment, as portions of the population are shrinking themselves down to about the size of an inch so they can reduce their carbon footprint.
Payne has said that "Election" is a look at political personalities, as opposed to focusing on a specific political topic. Payne grew up in the midwest, his father was a Republican, his mother a Democrat. And throughout his political movies, he's able to find a way at poking fun at an issue from all sides, and he does the same in "Election."
In the movie there are three characters running for class president. Tracy is a shrewd politician, very conservative in her behavior, and she believes that she is destined to win the election just because that's her destiny. The jock, played by Chris Klein, is tricked into the election by his teacher, but he's shockingly kind-hearted, optimistic, and would probably do the best job as president. And then there's the jock's sister, played by Jessica Campbell, who is running purely out of spite because her brother unwittingly stole her girlfriend. She is pure anarchy; during the debates she tells the student body to not vote in defiance of the system.
Payne could have stopped there, having the three main archetypes of our country's political spectrum -- conservative, liberal, and libertarian -- but he adds a bit of nuance to his characters. The jock, who is genuinely a nice guy, comes from a wealthy family. Tracy, by contrast, has no friends but is well liked by a few campaign lackeys, and she is the only daughter from a single working mother. And the jock's sister is an LGBT character, who is somewhat selfish, but for good reasons, and is willing to throw away her chances at winning. So each character is a traditional representation of our political system, yet also possesses nontraditional aspects.
Payne is able to add humanity to his characters and make them a lot more complex than what we perceive modern-day politicians to be. And maybe in our heatedly divided country, we need to take a step back and remind ourselves that these people running for office aren't just red or blue, D or R, but they are people with families and lives outside of politics. Or perhaps, the politicians are the ones who need to be reminded of that.