ELECTION (1999)

  • Director: Alexander Payne
  • Writers: Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, based on the novel by Tom Perrotta
  • Starring: Matthew Broderick, Reese Witherspoon, Chris Klein, Jessica Campbell, Phil Reeves, and Molly Hagan
  • Accolades: 1 Oscar nomination (Best Adapted Screenplay), 3 Independent Spirit Awards (Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay)
  • Where to: Stream with subscription to Amazon Prime, HBO Max, or the Criterion Channel, Buy or rent on Amazon Video or YouTube.

Alexander Payne’s 1999 film Election is the only one we’re featuring in our Horror & Politics Film Festival that isn’t, for the most part, about American national politics, nor is it a direct allegory for the same, though it sometimes feels like it. That seems to be why it has achieved a certain universality in the decades since its release, a movie that Barack Obama has supposedly named as his favorite political movie, one whose star, Reese Witherspoon, would later recount that Hillary Clinton told her people are always comparing her to. None of its characters are villains or heroes, but rather people we might recognize. And in Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick, her hand raised defiantly in class as Mr. McAllister (Matthew Broderick) desperately tries to call on someone, anyone but her, the movie achieves the ultimate enunciation of a specific type we all have met and had to grapple with in our own lives.

 As a teenager, I was enamored of this movie, a biting satire that uses every possible filmmaking technique at its disposal. It is structured around narration from four different characters, sometimes directly contradicting, sometimes slyly commenting on the action on screen. Paul (Chris Klein) is introduced to us with the word “Paul” flashing on screen with an arrow pointing to him. Later, Mr. McAllister’s big emotional climax of the movie happens while we stare at Tracy’s scrunched, freeze-framed face, mid-leap. Watching the movie for the first time in many years, I found myself struck by how much my sympathies had, in fact, shifted from McAllister to Tracy. In my original viewings, it seemed like Tracy really deserved whatever came to her. But in fact, basically all of the problems in the movie are caused by McAllister’s own lack of self-awareness, to his not having a handle on his own issues. When he says “she has to be stopped” now, I’d be left wondering why, except that the movie does a very good job of leading you to that point inside his head, right down to superimposing Tracy’s face onto the back of his wife’s head while they’re having sex. What, exactly, is he stopping?

Election is ostensibly the story of an election for high school president of a nondescript Omaha high school (named after George Washington Carver, though the vast majority of the student body is white), where Broderick’s Mr. McAllister teaches history and civics. He barely tolerates the type-A striver Tracy, especially because he knows she had an affair with his friend the math teacher and he ended up fired and divorced. He’s threatened by her, and yet also fantasizes about her. She is a hyperqualified woman who rubs everyone the wrong way because she wants it too much.

So McAllister recruits Paul, a former quarterback for the school team who hurt his leg, to run against her. Paul means well, but is irredeemably dim, and is completely oblivious to his own privilege. Things just sort of happen to him. He has a younger sister, Tammy (Jessica Campbell), a closeted lesbian who, after a falling out with her girlfriend, decides to also run for President in an effort to get back at him. Her last minute, nihilistic entry (she opens her speech with “who cares about this stupid election”) proves wildly popular but draws the ire of the school administration. In the end, everyone sort of turns out OK, with the possible exception of Mr. McAllister.

Broderick’s casting is perfect in the role, where he’s outwardly (and inwardly, as far as he knows) very friendly and chipper, but who gets driven beyond his breaking point by a mess of his own making, then never seems to learn anything. But Witherspoon disappears into her role, in one of the really great performances that you’ll ever see. Every movement is tightly controlled, ever word bitten off precisely. Even when she “loses control,” either in anger or happiness, she remains tightly wound, as in her celebratory hops with her back straight and feet together. Most of the rest of the cast, including Klein and Campbell, were local kids in Omaha recommended by local casting directors. Klein, in particular, went on a successful career that included appearances in the American Pie series and, more recently, a recurring villain on The Flash TV series.

Election is sometimes held up as some sort of allegory or metaphor for national politics, and if it is, it isn’t a direct one. The lone possible exception may be Tammy’s outsider campaign, which was apparently directly inspired by novelist Tom Perrotta’s view of Ross Perot’s 1992 presidential run. But the movie came out in 1999, just ahead of a very tumultuous few decades in American politics. It seems prescient, not because it makes “predictions,” but because it seems to understand something essential about America. And so within a year after this movie the nation came out, the nation was caught up in the Bush v. Gore election, which seemed at times to hinge on which candidate you’d rather “have a beer with,” as the saying went, and ended in controversy over vote counting, just as happens at the end of Election. If only someone in Florida could have found a couple ballots on a trash can. Then we went on to have hyperqualified female candidates whose greatest sin seemed to be wanting it too much, and a popular candidate whose campaign seemed to be built on nihilism and dislike of the current system. But all of this happened after Election.

This was Alexander Payne’s second film, after Citizen Ruth, about a paint-sniffing, pregnant washout, played by Laura Dern, who unwittingly becomes a pawn in the national abortion debate. As in that movie, Payne manages to balance acerbic, biting satire with sympathy for all of his characters. Tracy Flick, in particular, would be so easy to turn into a caricature, but Payne and Witherspoon are actually interested in her, they keep her a person we’ve all met. Tracy’s mother finds her weeping after a set-back, and after comforting her for a moment, “helpfully” notes that maybe she should put up more posters. Tracys come from somewhere, this movie knows. Payne’s satire has perhaps not remained as biting over the years, but each of his movies remains an event, including About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants, and Nebraska.

Election should not work. I mean, it has four competing narrators, no screenwriting professor would go for that. And yet I don’t think I thought about any of that for the first handful of times I watched this movie. All I knew was that it felt like a breath of fresh air. Since that time, I’ve come to give it even more credit. This may be a weird thing to say, but not that many movies actually seem to take place in an America where anyone would vote for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, but Election does. In 1999, it seemed to understand something about the America in the 2000s that a lot of people still don’t. And yeah, it’s pretty funny, too.

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