The new comedy Election has been justly praised for its sly take
on the American political process, though that's not the full extent of its
satirical triumph. Directed by Alexander Payne, from a script cowritten
with Jim Taylor (adapting a novel by Tom Perrotta), Election covers
the race for student body president at a high school in Omaha. What begins
as a spoof of homespun Midwestern values develops into a civics lesson
spiked with deceit, corruption, and the corrosion of ideals--in other
words, a typical campaign story.
Reese Witherspoon plays Tracy Flick, the kind of perky, soulless
overachiever who populates just about every public school in this
country--the kind for whom education is less about acquiring knowledge than
putting up impressive numbers. Matthew Broderick is Jim McAllister, the
social studies teacher who resents everything Tracy stands for, and who
recruits a popular football star to run against her for president.
Election lets each main character tell the story in his or her
own voice, in overlapping narration, a technique that illustrates the
distance between self-image and behavior. This is especially effective with
Broderick's well-liked "Mr. M," who lectures his classes (and the audience)
about the difference between morality and ethics, then invites his wife's
best friend to join him for a tryst at the local American Family Inn.
Witherspoon, who has been disappointing in recent roles, recovers nicely as
the almost feral Flick, a lonely girl with a maniacal streak.
The film's nasty tone is somewhat balanced by the other two narrators.
Chris Klein plays Paul Metzler, the former quarterback (sidelined by a leg
injury) and all-around nice guy, whose wide-eyed reaction to the events
whirling around him masks a general emptiness. The most straightforward
tale is told by Paul's sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell), a budding lesbian
with the most complicated motivations--she enters the campaign to spite an
ex-lover and causes a stir by promising to abolish the student
The filmmakers have a great deal of fun at the expense of the
pointlessness of high school elections, which aren't just popularity
contests but overt wastes of time. Mr. M tries to set up the ritual as an
example of democracy--what he calls the freedom to choose between apples
and oranges. Except that the apples and oranges that McAllister draws on
the chalkboard both look like featureless circles; and as Paul astutely
points out, his fondness for each fruit varies day by day. (A better
metaphor for the American electorate you're unlikely to find.)
Like most successful satires (The Truman Show and Being
There leap to mind), Election is as much about the pathetic
struggles of everyman as it is about ideology. Payne and Taylor explicate
the growing tension that leads McAllister to manipulate the
campaigns--teaching the same dull facts, year after year, and then going
home to bland meals and his secret stash of pornography. He begins to
overestimate his own importance, and to believe that by saving the school
from Tracy Flick, he's actually making a difference.
But all of that is right on the film's hilarious surface. What makes
Election a deeper experience is the filmmakers' mastery of visual
cues, from the heightened mundanity of a soda can's ludicrous lettering to
the subtle coarseness of the printed name "FLICK" when you squint at it.
Their best visual joke is the simplest, and the most telling--the automatic
seat belt on McAllister's car, which slowly and inexorably wraps around his
body, as a potent symbol of a character strapped into a role he never
wanted to play.