This Tuesday, Americans have to make perhaps their most important decision. Usually that is something we say every four years, but this year it is particularly so. This isn’t the place [and, frankly, I don’t have the intellect, nor the patience] to talk on the political issues surrounding this historic election—this is a place where we talk about films. And so, let’s use this dumb excuse to talk about one of the most interesting movie elections. To ignore the catastrophic political and governmental future of this country, the low-stakes [but dark in its own way] high school student council presidential election of Alexander Payne’s Election is a welcomed distraction.
Despite our obvious timing for covering Election, the film doesn’t say much about our national political process—it isn’t quite the satire you might expect. And, by and large, that’s OK. That is save for one moment: Tammy Metzler’s incredibly biting campaign speech. After our three class president candidates have been set, each are set apart through the class assembly. Tracy Flick is the serious candidate with an actual point-of-view and drive for change; Paul Metzler is the “aw shucks” nice guy, the perfect figurehead; his little sister, Tammy, gains a quick following as the “says it like it is” candidate, even when the rhetoric is problematic for the entire structure of the process. But when Tammy says “Who cares about this stupid election?” it rings absolutely true. “Do you really think it’s going to change anything around here?” That’s the kind of question that so many of the disillusioned and disenfranchised feel every time they choose to go to the voting booth or not. In our real world, the machine keeps churning no matter who we elect—especially today, as the extreme bipartisanship of Congress makes it increasingly difficult for anything to get done. That’s not entirely what Tammy is talking about as it relates to Carver High, but the feeling for the lonely outsider in high school does seem similar to what so many voters across the country must feel, too.
Through the ever-present voice-over and some of Payne’s stylistic touches, Election has an uncanny feeling of the filmmakers telling you a tale. This might not seem exceptional on face since film is a storytelling medium, but few of them tell a story quite like Election. The film is primarily the story of four people—high school social studies teacher Jim McAllister [Matthew Broderick], and the three students embroiled in the body’s class president election—though it not exclusively or uniformly. In ways, just as the film isn’t a commentary on elections, the film isn’t about an election, either. The contest is a perfect narrative device, however, to boil over their relationships and capture the nastiness of normal folks.
Re-analyzing Election the week of the most contentious U.S. presidential election in history makes one thing absolutely clear: this movie is full of terrible, awful people. The worst offender is the one we’re closest to, Jim McAllister, whose perspective slyly pervades almost everything we think of the world around him. Unlike other characters in the film, McAllister hasn’t committed any major crimes, but his pettiness becomes increasingly unbearable. His main antagonist, Tracy Flick [Reese Witherspoon], has become something of an anti-hero for fans of the film. She strikes me, however, almost totally as a product of McAllister’s perspective. She absolutely has her flaws: she’s a bit entitled [despite her speechifying of not getting a silver spoon], manipulative, and in need of control. She’s also an incredibly relatable character for anyone who went to a small, middle class high school, like I did—the overachiever, multiple club president, can’t wait to get out of their pathetic little town, is close to my own high school experience. I hope I wasn’t perceived as much of a bratty jerk as Tracy. Perhaps that’s my male privilege.
In the second film of his original “Omaha trilogy,” director Alexander Payne uses the quiet midwestern city as the perfect backdrop for his social satire. In Chicago or New York or Los Angeles, the misdeeds of these characters wouldn’t be so dramatic or interesting, but Payne and his fantastic screenplay [adapted from a novel by Tom Perrotta, who also wrote Little Children and The Leftovers] give everything from tearing down campaign posters to a minor affair the stakes of a Shakespearean tragedy. In other moments, there are inexplicable transformations into European art cinema [an affair-struck McAllister driving to school like in a French Riviera melodrama, his transition to New York City like a hip city doc], classing up this simple midwest tale.
Are there better representations of the American political process and more appropriate films to capture the insane moment in our nation? Yeah, no doubt, and some of those films may come into the discussion over the week. It is also true, though, that Election is fantastic; it is sharp, complex, funny, with memorable characters, and artistic direction. The film’s dark humor doesn’t exactly speak to the world 17 years later, but reveling in the small things that make people so terrible is a much needed exercise when considering the truly awful things that have come about because of the real-world counterpart.
Here is what we're covering this week:
- The Cinessential Podcast, Episode 3
- A deeper conversation on how Election fits in with Alexander Payne's work
- Related Review on Bill Clinton campaign documentary The War Room
- Our streaming recommendations based on this year's election