Classic Review – Election (1999)

by Kevin Muller

This isn’t a review, but a look at why this specific film is one of my favorite of all time.  Want an extremely short review?  “Election” is a masterpiece in film making that has beautifully subtle direction, a flawless script, incredible performances, and is funny as hell.   

Here, I am going to talk about why this movie can be used as a metaphor for most elections that happen every four years in this country.  The film maybe about a high school election but many of the antics can be applied to the event that defines our Democracy.   Please enjoy….

“Election” is a film, 18 years later, that still is sharp, witty, and downright satirical as it was in 1999. The film came out when I was 16, before I was the legal age to vote, so I appreciated what I saw at the time, which was a film that was hilarious and well made. Now, I see it as a piece of art that rightfully shows all the insanity that goes along with elections, four of which I’ve been witness to. This may seem like just a typical high school comedy, but it has so much to say that still resonates today. This is why it is one of my favorite films of the 1990’s.  

In a small Mid-Western town, early in the morning, a young and ambitious student sits at a table ready to show the world, well more like her fellow students, that she means business. This is Tracy Flick, who is played by Reese Witherspoon, and she is a spitfire. In the narration, she talks about how she was raised to be a winner. As a single child, her mother has made sure she molded her daughter to become a success. Tracy’s dream is to one day go to Washington and change the world. Her Social Studies teacher, Jim McAlister, played by Ferris Bueller himself, Matthew Broderick, is less than thrilled with her desire to run. You see, he runs the school government program and Tracy isn’t his favorite person. McAlister and Tracy have a history together. His former friend, who used to be the math teacher, was caught having a romantic fling with the young go getter. McAlister repeatedly tells us, again through narration, that he doesn’t blame Tracy for what happened since she was a student and his friend was supposed to be a responsible adult. Still, you can hear disdain in his voice as he narrates the fall of his old friend. The moviethen becomes a tale of him trying to destroy her by any means possible, while his own life implodes.   

Early in the movie, the two characters offer different perspectives on the occupation of being a teacher. McAlister is a beloved teacher who loves his job and takes it very seriously. Tracy’s counter argument is that being a teacher is the life choice of someone who is mundane, since they do the same thing every day while their students move on to do the things they weren’t able to achieve. It is a very nihilistic view of the saying “those who can’t do, teach.” While I know many teachers who are lively, I have also run into those who seem defeated in life.    

The narration is cleverly used here since it represents the inner thoughts of these two, but their actions do not reflect their thoughts. McAlister seems happy and tells the audience that everything is perfect, but we are shown evidence that makes it seem that Tracy maybe right. He has everything that is supposed to make you happy, but something is still missing. For the first part of the story, Tracy may seem a bit annoying and straight edge, but is shown as someone who believes in achieving the American Dream through good and honest hard work. It is when McCalister brings in the school jock to defeat her that we start to see Tracy isn’t as truthful as she lets on.

The disgraced math teacher points out that Tracy is a loner and it is a price to pay for someone as brilliant as her. Though the observation was part of his seduction, he does have a point. Many parts of the film show Tracy alone and isolated from everyone else.   Though she involves herself in every club possible, the student government is the only thing that makes her feel needed and worthy. When McAlister asks Paul, popular and kind, but dimwitted, to steal the election from her, it is here where we see Tracy’s true colors. Though they both despise each other, both McAlister and Tracy have one thing in common, they lie to make themselves happy.

Another character is thrown into the mix, Tammy. This is where director and co-writer Alexander Payne really starts to use these characters to show the state of politics in America. Tammy is the sister of Paul, but her identity goes beyond that specific trait. Early in the movie she tries to convert a friend to become her girlfriend, but the other girl doesn’t budge and hooks up with Paul in spite of Tammy. Tammy enters into the election just to stir things up. Unlike Paul, she is extremely cunning and smart, especially on how she orchestrates her specific happy ending. Most of all, she just doesn’t care about the election, which separates her from Tracy’s obsessive personality. As the movie progresses with these three, we see Tammy represent the unfortunate side of American voters, the apathetic. She constantly belittles the system, says what she feels, goes against the norm, and the crowd loves her for it. Sadly, this is the sad reality of many voters in America. Back in 2004, celebrities were used to influence young voters to “vote or die.” It was a bit over the top, but I understand what they were trying to do.  Forty years ago, the youth vote was extremely strong with 50% of the youth going out to be heard. This past election the number was somewhere between 40-45%. The character of Tammy definitely represents the apathetic nature of American voters. In her speech, she says she understands that no one really cares or believes what they preach. No, they just do it to place it on their college transcripts. Many American voters feel the same way as young Tammy does, understanding that the term “good natured” doesn’t belong anywhere near politics. That once the elected official is in, they will most likely not make good on their promises and use their power for their own benefits. This is why Tammy, while a supporting character, is as important as Jim or Tracy to the overall satire of the film.

Director and co-writer, Alexander Payne, definitely has a voice of his own that he has traveled with him for over twenty years. His films show real life through a harsh, but hilarious comic lens, and puts his characters through the wringer. They come out on the other side either changed or just more aware of who they really are. Some may hate his characters, others may love them, but their outcomes are real and truthful to the unpredictability of life. Many film makers try to do this, but fail to strike the correct balance. Payne takes the phrase, “people don’t change, they just become who they really are,” and creates people that his viewers can relate to.    

I am giving Election a 5 out of 5 Hairpieces!


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