Matthew Broderick, Reese Witherspoon, Chris Klein. Written by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor. Directed by Alexander Payne.
I first saw Election before I was aware of Alexander Payne as a director, enjoying it for what I considered Reese Witherspoon’s breakout performance and Matthew Broderick’s almost Willie Lomanesque portrayal of a well-meaning teacher who lets things get away from him. I was also only a few years into a teaching career and too green to relate as strongly to Broderick’s Jim McAllister as I do now.
What strikes me most now is how despicable each of the main characters is, with only Chris Klein’s Paul Metzler truly acting with best intentions. A football star injured in a skiing accident, his prospects for a great senior year seem wrecked until history teacher (and Student Council advisor) McAllister encourages him to run for student body president. McAllister’s reasons could pass for sympathetic and encouraging if not tainted by a dislike for the only declared candidate at the time, Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick. Tracy is the classic overachiever, driven by some desperate need to be excellent and successful according to all the usual academic metrics. She pretty much owns the student council, and Paul is reluctant to set foot in her territory, but at McAllister’s urging, he cluelessly gives it a go. Paul’s sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell) is furious with Paul because he’s dating the girl she loves, so she launches her own campaign for the presidency, delivering a speech in which she promises to abolish the student council as her first act.
Why is McAllister so resentful of Tracy? The reasons he offers—that she’s the sort who does anything to get what she wants, and that she should learn before she graduates that this is no way to behave—are weak, and seasoned educators like him should know that what he proposes never works. He’s also obviously bitter about the career-ending affair his best friend and colleague had with Tracy, even going so far as to suggest she was complicit in his friend’s downfall. She is, but she’s a child, and no reasonable teacher blames the student in a situation like this. The dismantling of McAllister’s career and marriage are not the results necessarily of bad thoughts by a bad man: I can certainly sympathize with his impulses in both areas. He is despicable because he cannot rise above these impulses and act as his better self. I imagine that in marriage, as in secondary education, one must be able to do so every day.
Payne does excellent work with this film. A lot of the playfulness is gimmicky, such as the voice-overs by multiple characters, but it works really well, especially with the freeze-frame effect he uses as his narrators break into the action to explain things. His fondness for casting non-actors in supporting roles lends super believability to the world in which the film is set. Teachers, students, and support staff move, talk, sit, and dress the way they do in a real school, and Payne’s decision to film in a real school during the school year is another plus. McAllister drives a blue Ford Festiva, a tiny car for a small man, but shoot. He’s a teacher, and that’s a reasonable car for anyone living a teacher’s life. I know, because I drove a red one.
As he does with Hawaii in The Descendants several years later, Payne offers views of Nebraska that we don’t see in most films, the everyday boringness of a strip mall or roadside motel, for example. When McAllister drives from home to work, the scenery behind him is dull, flat, and concrete, like the stuff most of us see every day on our own commutes. Black comedies tend to be somewhat outrageous, and Election qualifies, but because it’s rooted in so much realness, it feels a lot less fantastic and a lot more believable.
While it has a lot going for it, the film falls just shy of greatness because of one thing it doesn’t do well at all: sympathize with Tracy Flick. There is a short moment near the end, where during a voice-over, Tracy gives us a hint of what her relationship with her former math teacher means to her. It’s not enough, though, and through most of the film, it’s too easy to see her just as a hyper-ambitious, self-serving annoying young woman. We sympathize with everyone else throughout the film, but Tracy only gets that brief instance when she reminds us of how a grown man who was supposed to keep her safe instead took advantage of her, and how her vulnerabilities might have something to do with her behavior. Nobody seems to weep for Tracy Flick, which is how she would want it, but she is the real victim in this story full of victims.