Welcome to The Essentials, a series of articles originally published in 2016 that dared to try and create a list of essential movies for film lovers. This entry explores the hell of high school government – or just government – in Alexander Payne’s ‘Election.‘
I chose Alexander Payne’s bitingly cynical and witty Election as the latest Essential prior to Tuesday’s election, but it’s only after the disappointing real world results came in that I realized just how fitting it was. It won’t be a perfect analogy, but art and life share some similar themes and beats to the point where we really should have seen this coming.
The film, based on Tom Perrotta’s novel, tells the story of what should have been a simple high school election for class president and the people who made it anything but. Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) is a civics teacher, happily-ish married despite being a year in to an unsuccessful attempt to impregnate his wife. He likes his job, and he believes he’s a valuable teacher primarily because he truly cares about his students. That concern is tested though by one Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon).
The problem isn’t that he knows “her pussy gets so wet” – still one of the most memorable character introductions ever – it’s that he knows it because his best friend and fellow teacher, Dave Novotny (Mark Harelik), had an ill-advised affair with her. He was discovered and as a result lost his wife, child, and job. Tracy’s nonchalance about Dave’s destruction irks Jim, and when paired with her perky, perfectionist, know-it-all attitude she becomes the one student who he simply doesn’t like.
His distaste leads him to encourage an opponent to face her currently-unopposed bid for class president, and he finds the perfect contender in the school’s most popular student, Paul Metzler (Chris Klein). He’s far from the brightest knife in the drawer, but he’s an affable guy from an affluent family who speaks the language of the school’s average teens. Jim’s plan works fine at first, but a massive misstep in his personal life sees him sink to desperate depths with an attempt to rig the election.
It ends well for everyone but Jim.
At the surface, Alexander Payne’s Election is just a terrifically-produced comic gem with killer dialogue and sharp performances, and it rivals Rushmore for its energetic and stylistic exploration of exceptional high school youths. It finds depth though with its satirical gaze at our political system and the generations of Americans destined to control it – whether it be though participation or a lack thereof. “One person assured of victory kind of undermines the idea of democracy,” says Jim in an example of true wisdom. “The weak are always trying to sabotage the strong,” says Tracy’s mom as an example of the fear-mongering often used in place of it. Payne found greater success with his later movies – classier titles that weren’t produced by MTV Films – but this smart, funny, and perfectly cynical comedy remains his best.
You don’t need to look too hard to find parallels to this past election either. Tracy is a female candidate who knows women have to work twice as hard as men, and while she’s the best-suited for the job it’s clear her main motivation is higher positions of power. Paul is the putz who coasts towards victory despite a lack of proposals, plans, or thoughts. His sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell) actually enters the fray too and finds support after pointing out just how messed up the system is to an electorate who appreciates her nihilistic candor.
And then there’s the janitor. He never speaks, we barely give him a second thought, but like our country’s silent majority it’s his reaction to feeling slighted that brings the whole thing tumbling down.
Look, I said it wasn’t going to be a perfect analogy.
There are some interesting questions raised between the brutally funny events, and most of them are focused on the film’s viewer surrogate, Jim. Several characters narrate various scenes, but Jim is our main entry into the story. He’s a nice, caring guy with occasionally poor judgement, and it’s those missteps that ultimately sink his good intentions. He’s us – wanting a better world, capable of bending some rules to make it happen, and destined to fail because we can’t get out of our own damn way. On the bright side, if we take that further then the film’s final minutes are encouraging. Jim moves on from his failure and finds renewed focus both personally and professionally, and maybe that means we can too.
And yes, we also get to throw cups of coffee at the president-elect’s car.