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ELECTION(director/writer: Alexander Payne; screenwriter: Jim Taylor; cinematographer: James Glennon; editor: Kevin Tent; cast: Matthew Broderick (Jim McAllister), ReeseWitherspoon (Tracy Flick), Chris Klein (Paul Metzler), Jessica Campbell (Tammy Metzler), Phil Reeves (Walt Hendricks), Mark Harelik (Dave Novotny); Runtime: 103; MTV; 1999)
“Election”is director Alexander Payne’s (Citizen Ruth) cynical satire of the American schools and the electoral process.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

“Election”is director Alexander Payne’s (Citizen Ruth) cynical satire of the American schools and the electoral process. He questions American values, suggesting that it is better to lose a school election and be a nice person than to win and stand for nothing but your own self-aggrandizement. Tracy Flick (Reese) wants to succeed at any cost. She even asks God for help to win the school election, where she is running for president of her high school in Omaha, Nebraska. She becomes the easily recognizable villain in Payne’s disparaging look at American society.

One of the questions that might also be asked: Is how do you work in a system when you stop believing in it?

That will become the 64 dollar question for Jim McAllister (Broderick), as he undergoes some critical changes in his life and seems on the brink of a serious burnout. That he is a hypocrite, also, will become plain enough, when we see how he rationalizes his own personal foibles which includes an extra-marital affair with the divorced wife of his friend (Harelik). This is the friend who lost his teaching job because of his affair with Tracy. What makes his affair seem not to ring true, is that Harelik actually falls in love with this over ambitious student who leaves no impression that she is lovable. Jim, meanwhile, seems disingenuous as he looks down at his friend’s ex-wife’s cleavage, and in the same moment he tells her how much she means to him. The point being made in both cases, is that these men don’t know the difference between love and sex.

In school, Jim is the faculty advisor to the student council and speaks from his high perch of moral authority. In class he asks the students about the difference between ethics and morality, holding out for the most idealized answer. Jim cannot see the difference between his lies and how he perceives other people who lie.

When Tracy runs unopposed for school president, Jim decides to talk a dumb football jock into running, Paul Metzler (Chris). He just broke a leg, so he can’t play football, and is despondent about that. He has no real interest or ability for the office but Mr. McAllister is able to twist his arm into running by telling him good government depends on opposition, that it is his duty to run in order to make the election meaningful. Paul is one of those type of rich kids who is very nice and very popular, but who is not very sophisticated. In the meantime, Paul’s sister Tammy (Campbell) is having an affair with another girl. But this girl says she was just experimenting, that she’s no dyke; and, she breaks Tammy’s heart further by dumping her in favor of her brother. In order to get even for her hurt, Tammy decides to run against both Paul and Tracy for president.

The three candidates campaign with posters and reasons why they should be elected. Tracy obviously feels she must win because she has put her whole life on the line. Paul thinks he might be able to do some good. While Tammy becomes the dark horse candidate stating, “Who cares about this stupid election?”

The film didn’t know quite how to resolve the moral dilemma Jim got himself into and ends on a flat note. “Election” makes it appear both funny and sad to see how this once perfectly acceptable teacher becomes entangled with rigging the election and letting a personal hatred for a girl he was an advisor to bring him to the point where he can no longer be a trusted teacher.

In some ways this film reminded me of two diverse recent films, Welcome To The Dollhouseand Rushmore. They all had an anger, pointing at something in society that is not all that it appears to be and saying that is where the problem lies.

The screenplay by Payne and Jim Taylor accurately captured a certain look and feel of high school. It had a great performance by Matthew Broderick, who was subtle enough to bring out the inner and outer conflicts in his life; but, the story stopped short of saying it had any answers, choosing instead to blame no one for what is wrong with the educational system.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”