Written by: Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor
Starring: Matthew Broderick, Reese Witherspoon, Chris Klein, Jessica Campbell
Even when we may be oblivious to it in certain junctures of life, politics plays a part in everything we consume and participate in. Unavoidable by any stretch, even in the educational systems set to inspire and train the next generation of leaders. Election takes a look at how a simple school wide election serves not only as a microcosm for our overall world, but how it brings out the worst in people. Biting to its core, the mix of comedy and absurdity leads to the phenomenal observations made within this narrative.
As a well-respected teacher, Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) also advises the Student Government Association. With the elections coming up, upbeat and ambitious Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) runs unopposed for student body president until Jim decides to meddle. He convinces popular student-athlete Paul Matzler (Chris Klein) to throw his hat in the ring, which turns this process into pandemonium.
Having participated in a student government election myself and losing, I must admit this film cannot be considered an accurate depiction but it never tried to be. Election positions itself as an examination of who would get involved with running for office and the things they’re willing to do in order to get something over their perceived opponent. Ultimately, whoever becomes student body president can promise anything they want but most of it will not get accomplished, as astutely pointed out by one of the candidates. It serves mostly as a resume booster and for someone like Flick, also a way to combine it with gaining new friends. Something that should be low-stakes and simply a good practice of civics digestible for these students prior to participating in real elections, things should not get as wild as they do in this story. However, the results do wonders in exposing the true nature of the characters.
Much of the exposition and character setups come from the characters’ internal dialogue explaining their decisions and introducing themselves. While it can be seen as a cheap storytelling technique, this internal dialogue becomes critical to understanding the headspace of these characters. What they say to themselves and the audience cannot be repeated out loud considering the harsh content it contains. The characters receiving this treatment include Jim and the three students eventually running for student body president. Their motivations become clear and their true nature gets exposed to converse how they interact with each other.
The film opens with Jim going through his routine of getting ready for work while Tracy sets up her table in order to get the necessary signatures to officially run. Their first interaction is one of an overzealous student and an aloof teacher. It then shifts to the classroom where Jim asks his class to define morals and ethics to which Tracy vehemently raises her hand and Jim tries to find literally any other student to provide the answer. This scene not only sets the tone for what the theme of the story will be, but the fact that the answers given do not get completed indicates things will go a bit array with these two concepts with the narrative. Morals and ethics play a major part in what the characters do, as they seem to lack it in most instances.
Each of these leading characters deserve their own analysis due to what they represent in the grand scheme of the political machine of this country. The most intriguing one to look at undoubtedly proves to be Jim. He receives most of the screen time and the audience spends plenty of the narrative with his internal thoughts. With the reputation he built as a great teacher, expectations rode high that he would display the morals and ethics he brought up to his students. Instead, he gloriously displays a lack of it at every turn seemingly. The screenplay does a tremendous job of setting up why students like Jim as a teacher and why his inevitable downturn makes sense in his eyes. Throughout all of his heinous actions, Jim makes a point to say why he’s justified in this thinking. He remains a hero of the story in his own head, but the film shows him for the pathetic worm he unapologetically proves to be. This presents the reality Jim sees his life through and the real world where he’s a complete loser. The film never loses sight of this because he’s truly a misogynist, especially in the way he views Tracy.
Young Tracy Flick, on the other hand, could be her own case study to display the ambition a young woman can have in the political world. She works extremely hard to propel herself towards success, which includes putting in the time. Tracy knows she can accomplish things if she puts her mind to it, but she does have the tendency to harshly look down on others who she believes to be burnouts. This makes her insincerity of having other individuals join the presidential race obvious along with the demeaning way she looks at teachers. It becomes fairly easy to root for her against someone like Jim, who seemingly wants to bring her down as some sort of symbol. Her faults and villainy come with the arrival of Paul in this race. Her anger carries some justification seeing as no one showed any interest in running until Jim convinced Paul to do so. This becomes the classic case of the qualified woman having to closely compete with someone without nearly the equal amount of experience or enthusiasm to get things done for the sake of the students. With Paul being a good looking guy, who is popular and into sports, it’s all set up for the audience to hate him except for the fact that he may be the nicest guy on the planet.
The work Chris Klein does in this feature astounds me. Much like what he does in the American Pie films, he brings the physicality of a jock with the sincerity of a teddy bear. As Paul, he does nothing but wish everyone well and presents so much kindness to the point of naivete. While Tracy should be irritated about him putting up stiff competition simply because people like him, it becomes impossible to hate him because everything he does comes without cynicism or cunning motivations. He simply joins because a teacher he respects suggested he should and wants to make the school a better place in his own way.
Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick probably give each of their best performances in their respective role because of the complexities of the characters. With Broderick playing nice characters for his most known roles, seeing him portray this skeezy character goes against type in a wonderful way. He has the face of Ferris Bueller but the attitude of someone you never want to be around. Broderick captures the smarminess of this character and just how pathetic his motivations prove to be. Witherspoon stands out as the best as she completely runs with Tracy as a character. From the all-out enthusiasm to the legitimate anger and fury she displays, Witherspoon taps into this character’s headspace in glorious ways.
Co-writing and directing this feature, Alexander Payne continually impresses me with his sharp writing but also the deftness of his direction. Even with hearing the internal thoughts of these characters, whenever they get caught from a wrong they commit, the visual dread coming from their faces speaks volumes, way more than can be said through their inner dialogue. He frames the moral and ethical dilemmas so well because we know what these characters think and exactly how they feel justified in their actions. Payne, along with cinematographer James Glennon, painfully capture the drabness of the fluorescent lights utilized in these institutions to show how miserable this building makes the people in this story.
With plenty of incisiveness and fun to be had, Election beautifully exposes the darker impulses of people believing themselves to be in the right. The moral and ethical compasses get thrown to the side when egos get inflated to the point of popping. It serves as a harrowing microcosm of the real world in the way women need to work twice as hard to reach the same place as their male colleagues while showing nobody to be perfect when trying to work in politics. Flaws galore with the characters all wrapped up into such an engaging, hilarious, and ferocious piece of entertainment.