By: Alex Ledebuhr
Election is the hilarious recollection of a student election which takes place at G.W. Carver High School in Omaha, Nebraska. This 1999 black comedy comes from Academy Award winning writer/director Alexander Payne (Nebraska, The Descendants), based on Tom Perotta’s (The Leftovers, Mrs. Fletcher) novel of the same name. The film depicts the aforementioned student election from various points of view, offering several different narrations/perspectives on the situation.
Matthew Broderick (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, WarGames) stars as the initially likeable teacher, Mr. McAllister, who is a large presence at Carver High. He cares about the students in his stead and he participates in a lot of extra-curricular activites, winning Teacher of the Year three times. When he witnesses self-righteous student Tracy Flick, played by Reese Witherspoon (Walk the Line, Wild), running unopposed for President of student council, McAllister decides to intervene. His intentions may not be the purest, as his fellow teacher and best friend, Dave, played by Mark Harelik (42, Trumbo), lost his job over an illicit affair with Tracy. Regardless, McAllister spurs on dimwitted jock Paul Metzler, played by Chris Klein (American Pie, Just Friends) in his first role, to run against Tracy. Simultaneously, Paul’s sister Tammy, played by Jessica Campbell (Freaks and Geeks, Junk), decides to run against both Paul and Tracy due to her “girlfriend,” Lisa, dumping her for Paul. The once-thought easy win for Tracy just got a whole lot more complicated.
Election shows the lengths that people are willing to go to get what they want. The film often shows the very conflicted ethics and morals of the characters, especially Tracy and Mr. McAllister. What’s the difference between ethics and morals you may ask? Well, the film hilariously never clears this up, but almost all the characters in the film display a very poor set of both. The film also toys with the concept of what is crossing the line. While this line is blurred at times, it is very obviously crossed at several moments in the film, the first of which is Dave beginning a doomed intimate relationship with a student. Under no circumstances is this ever okay, and McAllister even tries, unsuccessfully, to tell his friend that what he is doing is wrong. Unfortunately, Dave doesn’t listen, and he loses his job and his marriage over it. If this film were made today, I am sure he would have faced much harsher consequences, and rightfully so!
Tracy also crosses a line when she tears down all of Paul’s campaign posters down in a fit of rage. Even though she did a decent job of covering up this blatant act of cheating/poor sportsmanship, McAllister brings her into his office and bluntly accuses her of the act of vandalism. He tells her, “we have to learn that our actions, all of them, can carry serious consequences,” which is a wonderful, if not ironic, bit of advice. This definitely rings true throughout the film, but not in the way which McAllister thinks it will. Spoiler alert, but Tracy essentially gets off scot free, while McAllister pays dearly for the many poor decisions he makes throughout the film. Even though he is well intentioned, he definitely crosses the aforementioned line of ethics… or morals… or whichever the hell one it is! End spoiler.
I think one major takeaway of the film is to practice acceptance. Sure, there will always be people out there like Tracy Flick who aren’t necessarily bad people, but their smug way of rubbing things in people’s noses is off-putting to say the least. The bottom line is Jim McAllister is not a perfect protagonist, far from it actually. He has many character defects and doesn’t maintain his professionalism, instead, letting an “annoying” girl in his class get to him. This pettiness, as well as his ironic deviation from his marriage, leads to his downfall. I think it goes without saying that Jim should have listened to his own advice: all our actions have serious consequences.
Technically the film is an absolute joy to watch. The cinematography is pretty solid, and the writing is fantastic, but the real standout is the editing. Mr. Kevin Tent (Nebraska, The Descendants), who is a frequent collaborator with Alexander Payne, increases the humor of the film exponentially with his genius editing. Supposedly he even bribed Payne with a fifty-dollar check in order to edit one of the final scenes the way he wanted. Payne accepted the money and allowed Tent to edit the scene in question (when Jim is confronted by the principal, superintendent, Tracy and her mom, and several other key players) the way he wanted. Ultimately, Payne agreed Tent’s version of the scene was superior and it’s the version that ended up on screen. Funny enough, he kept the check. All humor aside, it’s that special relationship between a director and his editor that can take a film to unexpected heights, and theirs has blossomed throughout the majority of Payne’s directing career.
While some elements of Election haven’t necessarily aged the best, I think it is still a hilarious film to watch. Seriously, some of the smash cuts will make you spray milk out of your nose, so beware. The film has an interesting message and could be a spectacular example of what not to do for teachers and educators. Having been a long time since I last watched it, I realized now that Matthew Broderick’s character is definitely more of an anti-hero if not a downright antagonist. While he starts off as a self-described “teacher who takes his job seriously,” he ultimately is seduced by corruption, which leads him down an inevitable path of self-destruction. Even though Jim seemingly doesn’t learn his lesson, perhaps his tale could be used as a resource for teachers and educators across America, as some of the themes displayed in Election will, unfortunately, never disappear.