Program Notes: Election (1999)
Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) is the overachieving queen of Omaha's Carver High. She pretty much takes up her own page in the index of the yearbook, will join any committee that lets her be in charge, and is always the first in class to raise her hand with an answer (which is invariably correct).
She's also terminally perky, with a can-do attitude and little but pity for those who don't share her naked ambition.
“The weak,” she reasons, “are always trying to sabotage the strong.”
In short, the well-known but essentially friendless Tracy is on her way to becoming the most dangerous human since Hitler, and the next stop on her climb to power is the presidency of Carver's student council.
Election was written and directed by Alexander Payne, the man behind Sideways, Citizen Ruth, About Schmidt, and The Descendents. It’s a bitterly funny satire that begins as a send-up of high school politicking but quickly becomes much, much more.
Witherspoon is both infuriating and compelling as Tracy, perfectly capturing the character’s fierce drive and ruthless methodology while exploring her fundamental solitude.
What's more, Witherspoon has the most expressive pair of nostrils in the business. Just observe how they flare in anger, constrict in concentration, dilate in ecstatic dreams of power. If she had no other resources as an actress, her nose would tell us all we need to know.
Teacher-of-the-year Jim McCallister (Matthew Broderick), the student government adviser, quietly dreads the thought of working hand-in-glove with Little Miss Perfect for an entire year.
So he coaxes sweet, brainless, and popular football hero Paul Metzler (Chris Klein...this was his first movie) into running against Tracy.
What nobody counts on is that Paul's sullen little sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell) – who protests that “I'm not a lesbian, but I'm only attracted to women” – would also announce her candidacy, running on the Who Cares? ticket.
Compared to the scheming Tracy and the inarticulate Paul, Tammy and her gospel of nihilism resonate mightily with the student body.
This is only the basic setup; what follows involves intrigue, betrayal, corruption, and sex. Hey, anything you can have in a national presidential election you can have in high school.
Making all this doubly enjoyable is the format Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor employ to tell their tale. The main characters are allowed to deliver their own voice-over narration, revealing motives, goals, and especially their capacity for rationalization and self-delusion.
It's here that Election becomes, if not profound, at least stingingly perceptive. Few films have done such an effective job of depicting the gap between how we see ourselves and how others see us.
As for Broderick, it's a treat to see the man who played the teacher-terrorizing Ferris Bueller on the other side of the academic equation. Broderick has rarely seemed so desperate, whether he's exhausting himself in his wife's get-pregnant regimen or squirming as his web of deceit starts to unravel.
In fact the film has been perfectly cast, from Klein's dim-bulb to Phil Reeves' terrific turn as a high school principal who seems to have studied management at the elbow of Slobodan Milošević.
Rolfe Kent's eclectic musical score is a huge source of amusement, giving each character his or her own parodistic theme. (Tracy's is reminiscent of that of the Wicked Witch of the West, heavy on the ominous timpani.)
Election’s message – that most of us are connivers and the rest of us are simply stupid – may not be heartwarming, but it is diabolically entertaining.
Other films in the series “Everything is Politics”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- October 6: Wag the Dog (1997) Rated R
- October 13: The Candidate (1972) Rated PG
- October 20: Election (1999) Rated R
- October 27: Dave (1993) Rated PG-13
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.