Ah, high school. That awful time in your life where your main concern was how everyone collectively perceived you from their point of view. It’s a time in our lives where we all truly felt that the way we presented ourselves mattered, and that others’ opinions of us defined who we were — rather than, you know, how we felt about ourselves first and foremost.
With that description in mind, high school sounds like the ideal setting for a dark comedy satirizing only politics, but also our obsession with how others see us, whether they like us or not, and where we fall in the social hierarchy of things. And in director Alexander Payne’s 1999 film, Election, Payne examines all these and more, humorously presenting the similarities between popularity contests like high school elections and the larger, chaotic election process of major political campaigns.
Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) is a mild-mannered history teacher employed at a suburban Nebraska high school. He has a generally content marriage to his wife, Diane (Molly Hagan), and seems happy enough in his professional life as an educator. However, Jim’s life soon undergoes some unexpected changes when the ambitious, overachieving student, Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), announces her intent to run for the high school presidency.
Seeing that Tracy will run unopposed and holding a personal grudge against her for her overeager attitude and the fact that she slept with a former teacher and close friend of Jim’s (resulting in the teacher’s dismissal and divorce), Jim convinces kindhearted, naive football player, Paul (Chris Klein) to run against her.
Things soon get even more complicated when Paul’s younger sister, Tammy (Jessica Campbell) — bitter and upset when her girlfriend leaves her for Paul and becomes his new campaign assistant — throws her hat into the election as well. As the three find themselves fiercely competing over the title of the high school president, Jim’s personal life slowly breaks down around him, renewing his hatred for Tracy and doing everything he can — even at the risk of losing his own job — to ensure that she loses.
It’s funny to think that a movie set in high school is one of the best political satires out. Per Payne, Obama has twice said that the movie is his favorite political movie, with the character of Tracy Flick earning comparisons to everyone from Hillary Clinton to Sarah Palin since the movie’s release. But really — for all the differences you’d expect to see between a seemingly meaningless high school election and a campaign for a major political seat in office (such as the US Presidency) — the fundamentals between the two actually remain more or less the same, with way more similarities existing between them than there are differences.
In the film’s election — much like real-life politics — it isn’t necessarily about who’s the most accomplished, intelligent, well-spoken, or articulate. It’s about popularity, a person’s charm and charisma and likability, as strictly superficial and surface-level as that sounds. The person who says what the people want to hear may not win, but they’ll certainly have a good chance at winning based solely on their outward charm, rather than their qualifications or political stances. It doesn’t matter if they’re an airheaded jock with no plans to change anything (like poor, sweet-natured Paul) — if the people recognize him and like him, there’s a very strong chance he'll win based entirely on that.
There’s a reason Election is considered one of the most biting satires there is, completely skewering modern politics and painting it in as grim and unflattering a portrait there is — and a reason why Witherspoon’s Tracy is alternatively considered a crude caricature of today’s unscrupulous politician and or her more favorable reputation as a go-getter who doesn’t let anything stand in her way.
At the beginning of the film, Tracy is very obviously the best choice for high school president. She’s the most qualified, the most intelligent, the most organized, and has a legitimate agenda to fix what she perceives as the weakest aspects of the school. Unlike the other candidates too, she actually wants to be the high school president, and isn’t running in the race as a way to occupy her time (like Paul, who’s sidelined with a sports injury, and finds the race a good way to stay in front of the crowd and keep himself busy) or as an outsider (like Tammy).
It’s only when outside interference from Jim threatens her chances at winning that the uglier side of Tracy comes out, forcing her to re-evaluate her campaign strategies and to become more conniving and ruthless. And before we know it, she’s become corrupt, sabotaging her opponents’ races and lying about it. She begins the film as an idealist, but by the end, she’s become an almost Machiavellian, power-hungry monster who’s willing to do whatever it takes to win — lying about her actions when she’s caught, and flaunting her victories when she isn’t.
It’s Tracy’s evolution — or rather, her moral degradations — that accounts for so much of Election’s satirical elements. Because for as amoral as her actions are and as much as she doesn’t deserve to win against Paul (who’s so honest, he won’t even vote for himself in the election), Tracy ends up winning big in the end, not only getting herself elected president, but also consequentially getting her rival, Jim, fired, and pursuing her own dreams to become a successful politician in Washington after she’s graduated. It’s a harsh message for Election to end on, but it fits with the movie’s overall dark tone: in politics, only the most deceitful, dishonest, and disingenuous (like Tracy) win; everyone else (the “good guys” like Paul) loses.
One of the most interesting aspects about the film, though, is the thin line between “antagonist” (Tracy) and “protagonist” (Jim). As we spend time with the characters, it becomes very apparent that such technical terms as “hero” and “villain” can’t really be applied to this film, with both of them being pretty deplorable in their own right (Jim more so than Tracy actually, as his disdain for her directly leads to her becoming the vain, lying politician we see by the end of the movie). In a parallel universe, a director could’ve just as easily shot the film from Tracy’s point of view — not changing a word of dialogue — and Jim would’ve been the perfect villain — a bitter, tyrannical teacher with an unhealthy hatred for a single student (like the principal from either The Breakfast Club or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off).
Watching the movie, it’s very easy to see that Jim is as fundamentally a horrible person as Tracy, his own evolution in the movie closely mirroring Tracy’s own character arch. While he doesn’t necessarily appear to be the best person at the start of the movie, he becomes bitter, selfish, and prone to irrational anger and irritability as the film progresses. The only difference between Jim and Tracy is that Tracy ends up coming out on top at the end — Jim doesn’t (an ending that very much keeps in line with the political undertones of “winners” and “losers,” the main battle at the heart of Election not being between Tracy and her constituents, but between Jim and Tracy).
It’s worth pointing out that Jim’s intense dislike of Tracy — and his eventual undoing — are all directly attributable to Jim himself. Jim begins the movie with this weird, active hatred towards Tracy not because she’s a bad student, but because she’s a precocious one, the kind of student who can’t keep from answering every question in class, and also because Jim blames her for his best friend’s professional and personal life disintegrating.
When Jim starts losing control of his life as a result of his own meddling decisions, he directs his antagonism outwards at others (specifically Tracy) as a way of avoiding responsibility for his own actions. (It’s no accident that when Jim’s personal life becomes more unstable — again, because of his own poor decisions — he becomes even more bent on seeing Tracy lose).
And ironically, both Tracy and Jim’s troubles usually stem from their own faults — Tracy accidentally rips her own poster, launching into an uncontrolled bout of anger that sees her tearing down everyone else’s posters too, nearly getting her into trouble with the school administrators until Tammy takes the blame.
Similarly, Jim’s woes stem from his own faults — he cheats on his wife and tries to rig the election, losing his job and ruining his marriage. But rather than accept the blame, he directs his anger outwards at Tracy because he’s too much of a coward to address his own shortcomings. Even when his life seems to be improving at the end of the film — he meets a new woman, gets a new, more fulfilling job, and achieves his lifelong dream of moving to New York — his unequivocal hatred of Tracy his otherwise happy ending, as seen when he deliberately ignores a young girl who reminds him of Tracy (the first of many Tracy lookalikes that Jim will almost certainly ignore, setting up the beginnings of his sufferings all over again). It’s a fantastic way to avoid stereotypical presentations of “antagonist” and “protagonist” archetypes, painting each character as morally gray and as realistically as possible.
Due to its political undertones and the more and more chaotic political issues we find ourselves being engulfed by, it seems like Election is a more important movie now than ever before — especially when our elections seem to have turned into reality television shows where candidates spend their time cutting each other off and insulting one another like fourth graders than actually explaining their stances on key issues like climate change, systemic racism, ways to fix the economy, global health issues, or international humanitarian crises.
It’s an unfortunate state of affairs when today’s generations of politicians act more like short-tempered children than the actual teenaged candidates in Election. And unfortunately, as long as our political landscape remains the way it is, Election will remain a movie we can spend our time laughing at and also soberly reflecting on, marveling at how relevant it is and (sadly) continues to be.
Election is currently streaming on Paramount+ and Prime Video, as well as The Roku Channel, Philo, and Sling TV (premium subscription required for Roku, Philo, and Sling)
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