Written by Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor
Directed by Alexander Payne
There’s something deeply wrong in America. It’s a rotten core deeply embedded in the manufactured two-party political culture wars that go on endlessly. We Americans are petty, spiteful, hateful people. It’s simply the truth. Our elite spin fancy myths that seek to bolster our perceptions, but all you need to do is step back a bit, and you begin to see the fetid sludge come boiling to the surface. We crave the boot of brutal authority just as long as we can glance over and see our neighbor getting worse than us. When I first watched Election as an 18-year-old college freshman, I didn’t really get it. I don’t think the culture as a whole did, as I would hear things about Tracy Flick being such a bitch. She’s the villain of the movie, right? Not at all. She’s the victim. But we so quickly decided she was the bad guy.
Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) is a high school history teacher in Omaha, Nebraska. His best friend and coworker Dave has recently lost his job and his wife after it came to light that the adult man was having an affair with senior Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon). Jim acknowledges that Dave did a horrible thing but still holds a grudge against Tracy. Tracy can be an easy person to dislike. She is a Type A personality, very ambitious, competitive, and overachieving. She is also a child, and Dave is a child rapist. Student elections are coming up, and Tracy is running unopposed for student government president. Jim hates the idea of her just being handed the win and encourages Paul (Chris Klein), a popular football player, to run. Paul’s sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell) is a closeted lesbian whose girlfriend has just broken up with her and then takes up with Paul. Tammy is infuriated, and when she sees her brother running decides to throw her hat into the race simply as a spoiler.
Election is based on a novel by Tom Perrota, which I read about a decade ago. It’s a very good book, and the film’s tone is a little different. They have entirely different endings, with the book’s ending not having tested well with audiences. The alternate epilogue is fitting for what I see as the themes of the film being. This is a movie about refusing to accept your responsibility for problems you have created. Not every situation in a person’s life is of their creation. We can carry traumas from experiences, even baggage heaped on us from our parents wanting to hand off their traumas. This is not the case with Jim. He’s a bastard who gaslights children and cheats on his wife. The finale is a perfect showcase of what a simpering, pathetic shit he is, unable to stand someone else having something good happen in their life. Jim never fully realizes he could have good things if he was an honest, genuine person who wasn’t so far up his own ass all the time.
One of the film’s most effective shots comes early when Jim narrates what he knows about Dave’s grooming of Tracy. There’s a moment when Dave has Tracy at his house alone. He has reached the point where he going to pressure her into sex. Tracy follows him down the hallway towards the bedroom, and the way Witherspoon performs the moment and how Payne shoots it emphasizes how small she is, a reminder that this is a child being abused by an adult who knows what they are doing. For the rest of the film, it doesn’t matter how unlikable I might find Tracy as a person; she is a developing person trying to figure out how to be in the world. We learn that she comes from a background that doesn’t guarantee great success, and she wants to do more than just live & die in Omaha.
I liked that Paul remains such a pure oblivious doofus throughout the whole picture. In one way, he’s a perfect picture encapsulation of white male privilege, stumbling into things and having so much good luck you never have to think for a moment. But he’s also a lovely guy who is never mean to Tracy and seems to love everyone he meets. Even Tammy doesn’t really hate Paul; she’s angrier at her ex, whom Paul doesn’t know anything about. Tammy is upset that she can’t be out with who she is because it would lead to bullying that the faculty & admin would do nothing about. In reality, people like Paul win elections constantly because they are harmless on a surface level. The problem comes when extremely toxic people populate their cabinets and advise them to do horrible things. Unfortunately, the Pauls of the world do not possess the type of critical thinking skills to push back; they just want everyone to like them. Similarly, Tracy’s flaw can be her ambition; she does tear down Paul’s posters in a fit of anger. Learning to temper ourselves and pick our battles is how we become good leaders.
I really loved the variety of narrative techniques used to tell this story. It could have been done very straightforwardly and have been fine, but I think what appealed to audiences at the time and still, today is how the story shifts perspectives. For example, there are freeze frame moments, often pausing on the actor making an unflattering face. During the freeze frame, we’ll get voice over from the character talking about what they were thinking at the moment. There are also numerous flashbacks so that the film doesn’t have a linear narrative, instead filling in the back story right in the moments where the audience would need to know it. It never feels contrived and instead follows the kind of scattered way our brains work.
I think Election is Payne’s best movie, with Sideways being a close second. One of the things I’m interested in looking at with the work to come is why Payne could not keep the momentum going. This will be especially important when we get to his latest release, Downsizing. Payne is clearly interested in telling very human stories in a stylized manner, but somewhere he loses touch. I see a slightly elevated sitcom writing style in his later work, and I think it does the films a disservice.