In retrospect, it seems there was something destined about the release of Election in the year 1999. Though the Tom Perrotta novel the film is based on was inspired in part by the 1992 presidential campaign—with its third-party interloper, Ross Perot—Alexander Payne’s scabrous yet mournful satire, adapted with his frequent collaborator Jim Taylor, presages with eerie clarity the political fortunes and plunging public morale of early twenty-first-century America. Contested election results, a dubious recount, a populist demagogue running on a platform of sheer nihilism, a hyperqualified female candidate punished for her unseemly ambition—all these developments still lay in the country’s future when Election came out, but the movie already felt timeless in a way that only great comedy can.
Over the nearly two decades since, Election’s resonance has continued to grow and deepen. Reese Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick has become one of those characters whose names live on outside fiction as shorthand for a popular archetype: in this case, the woman who lets herself be seen wanting too much, exhibiting an excess of desire that is comic in its arrogance and tragic in its inevitable thwarting. Witherspoon has recalled that, when she met Hillary Clinton, the politician told her, “Everybody talks to me about Tracy Flick in Election.” It’s a comparison that must have stung, given the character’s uneasy suspension between trailblazing heroine and scheming villain. And according to Payne, Barack Obama twice named Election as his favorite political film. It’s fascinating to ponder what our forty-fourth president, a politician of consummate polish and ease, might find to identify with in this movie’s world of tightly wound strivers and abject losers. Maybe it’s simply that, as a pragmatic incrementalist, he loves Election’s sly send-up of high-flown campaign rhetoric.
Destiny is a word that crops up often in the multiple-perspective voice-over that structures Election. “You can’t interfere with destiny; that’s why it’s destiny,” Tracy asserts in an opening monologue that, like the rest of the narration to come, is reliable only in its thoroughgoing unreliability. Debates about fate, free will, and the possibility of meaningful choice—usually couched as awkward conversations about sex, civics, or student-council protocol—recur throughout the story. “Is this a moral or an ethical situation?” Matthew Broderick’s Jim “Mr. M.” McAllister, an Omaha, Nebraska, social-studies teacher on the brink of a midlife crisis, asks a classroom of squirming students. “What’s the difference between morals and ethics anyway?” It’s a distinction that his fellow teacher Dave Novotny (Mark Harelik), who is fired from the school after an affair with Tracy comes to light, seems to neither understand nor value; his exploitation of this underage girl’s bottomless need for adult approval is a violation of both.
Dave’s transgression is the primal bad decision in Election, the rotten apple that spoils the barrel. (Apples, the official fruit of both teacher appreciation and the temptation to sin, are a motif of the movie.) Out of resentment at what he sees as Tracy’s inevitable ascent to the student-body presidency—or is he motivated by simple sexual jealousy?—Mr. M. resolves to sabotage her campaign, encouraging the simpleminded but amiable jock Paul Metzler (Chris Klein) to run against her. Meanwhile, Paul’s younger sister, Tammy (Jessica Campbell), a closeted lesbian furious at having lost her first girlfriend to her popular and clueless brother, throws her hat into the ring as well, turning Tracy’s unopposed campaign into a hotly contested three-way race. Tammy’s speech to the student body, an undisguised brief on behalf of political apathy—“Who cares about this stupid election anyway?”—wins her an unexpected standing ovation and the lasting distrust of the school administration. While these machinations are going on at the level of student government, Mr. M.’s personal life is quietly but quickly falling apart as he pursues a pitiful extramarital affair with the lonely ex-wife of the disgraced Dave.
Election is Alexander Payne’s follow-up to his startlingly mature 1996 feature debut, Citizen Ruth, an equal-opportunity abortion satire that starred Laura Dern as an unhappily pregnant, paint-huffing loser who becomes a pawn of both the pro-choice and pro-life movements. Together, these two movies, which played in a savage register unseen in American comedy since the days of Preston Sturges, marked Payne as a major new directorial talent. What set his movies apart was, first of all, their malicious wit—a wit registered not only in Election’s sharp script but in stylistic choices like the vintage Ennio Morricone music cues that accompany Tracy’s periodic spikes of anxiety and frustrated ambition. But beneath that sardonic humor—or rather, on its reverse side, always ready to reveal itself in the next turn of the Möbius strip—there’s a rigorously unsentimental tenderness. Payne’s characters may see themselves as figures in a spaghetti-western-style landscape of moral absolutes, but their real value lies in their refusal to inhabit the Hollywood hero-to-villain spectrum; they’re banally human and humanly banal, lovable for the very qualities that make them terrible.
In his movies since Election—About Schmidt (2002), Sideways (2004), The Descendants (2011), and Nebraska (2013)—Payne has deepened his exploration of his characters’ humanity without losing sight of that ridiculous and redemptive banality. But his gift as a social satirist has perhaps never been on better display than in the compactly perfect Election, which turns the fictional George Washington Carver High—where nearly all the students are white—into a microcosm of a smug and self-deluded culture. The ironic distance between the characters’ beliefs about themselves and what we’re meant to understand about them is telegraphed by a free-roving camera that often picks out details that undermine the complacent voice-over narration. (“I began to see what an incredibly giving and sensitive person Linda was,” Broderick’s character tells us, as a shot down the low-cut neck of her dress clues us in to his baser motives.) As a filmmaking student at UCLA, Payne professed his love for the work of the Spanish surrealist Luis Buñuel; though his work is less chilly in its rigor, it’s easy to find moments in Election that observe erotic longing and the thirst for power from a Buñuelian remove.
Payne’s intelligence is also palpable at the level of casting, which, in Election as in all his Omaha-set films, mixes Hollywood veterans with nonprofessional locals to excellent effect. Thirteen years after making his mark as the hooky-playing hero of John Hughes’s hit teen comedy Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Broderick, his boyish face just beginning to show signs of middle age, was an ideal choice to play the beleaguered and compromised schoolteacher obliviously convinced of the righteousness of his own path. The twenty-three-year-old Reese Witherspoon, previously known for playing a time-traveling ingénue in Pleasantville and an endangered teen in the thrillers Fear and Freeway, was handed a career-making role in the complex, often grating, but ultimately triumphant Tracy. And Chris Klein and Jessica Campbell, two midwestern kids whom Payne found through a network of high-school drama departments and local casting directors, are innately believable as a pair of suburban siblings thrown into a conflict whose stakes only one of them even remotely understands.
The film’s casually nonjudgmental treatment of same-sex attraction between teenage girls was a breakthrough, coming as it did not long after an era of ambient cultural homophobia in which analogous situations in mainstream comedies often served as questionably funny punch lines (e.g., Heathers’ jokey repeated line from a newly bereaved father who, wrongly convinced his late straight child was in the closet, repeatedly and performatively affirms his love for his “dead gay son”). Tammy’s adolescent mooning over her consecutive soul mates is duly satirized—there’s little in this movie’s sacred-cow-free space that isn’t—but it’s her oblivious idealism that gets punctured by Payne’s gentle lance, rather than the notion of budding lesbian love. Indeed, Tammy is one of the few characters permitted an unambiguously happy ending when her truculent behavior gets her transferred to an all-girls parochial school whose sports teams she’s been lasciviously ogling in her spare time. Her brother also lands on his feet, gleefully partying down with his fellow college-bound seniors, though he still dimly wonders how chance or free will might have intervened differently in that fateful student-body election: “Maybe my whole life would be different—like I might never have gone to Yosemite with Greg and Travis. Or maybe I’d be dead!”
Our final glimpse of Jim McAllister and Tracy Flick, this movie’s monomaniacal Captain Ahab and his maddeningly overachieving white whale, is more ambiguous, ending the film on a note that’s funny and ominous at the same time. Mr. M., who is scraping by as a low-paid teaching assistant at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City after his humiliating expulsion from the halls of Carver High, pays a visit to Washington, D.C., for a conference. Crossing a street with a just-purchased American flag in one hand and a milkshake in the other, Mr. M. is informing us in voice-over just how happy he is in his new life when he catches a glimpse of Tracy. Now apparently working as a congressional aide, she climbs into a limousine with an older male politician. In an ill-thought-out gesture of adolescent rage, Mr. M. hurls his drink at their departing limo—then, seized by fear at the thought of reencountering his former student, disappears at a run into a nearby park, leaving the audience to wonder what moral progress, if any, this benighted and still-bitter man has made. And are we meant to cheer the dedicated but ruthless Ms. Flick’s apparent success in the post-high-school political world, or to regard her as a rough beast slouching toward Washington to be born?
In the original ending that Payne shot for Election, one that hews more closely to the conclusion of Perrotta’s novel, we find Mr. M. working at a car dealership and Tracy coming in to buy a car for college. The two of them go on a test-drive together, and he apologizes for his mistreatment of her during the election fiasco. As the film ends, she asks him to sign her senior yearbook, suggesting the beginning of a truce. It’s a much softer ending for a film that, for the preceding hour and a half, offered very little in the way of heartwarming emotional overtures. After test audiences, as well as the filmmakers themselves, reacted negatively to this scene’s incongruous tone of elegiac sweetness, Payne and Taylor wrote the darker ending and filmed it a few months before the film’s release. With almost twenty years of perspective, this postproduction decision seems patently right. The bitter yet wistful tone of the rewritten ending—which implies, in a final coda, that Mr. M. hasn’t met his last schoolgirl archnemesis—has been crucial to securing Election’s lasting reputation as a story about much more than a political dustup at an Omaha-area high school. Better to remember Mr. M. this way, sprinting forever into the middle distance in an attempt to escape the consequences of his actions and the uncomfortable truths of his past, as Tracy and her powerful new mentor pull away into the uncertain future of the twenty-first century.