Alexander Payne’s ‘Election’ (1999)

23Jul07


Election is a delicious satire of high school student council politics that manages to generate both humor and poignancy. Alexander Payne’s direction is perfect, and his vision is realized by a quartet of strong lead performances.

I’m amazed that Reese Witherspoon experienced difficulty landing roles after appearing in this film because I think her performance is tremendous. Witherspoon plays Tracy as manipulative and vindictive, but the audience can feel sorry for her when she sobs after losing the election and can still see her as a victim of Mr. Novotny’s inappropriate attention and her mother’s unfulfilled ambitions. She more than any other actor has to walk a very fine line between character and caricature, and a less-skilled performer in this role would have sunk the film.


With this role Matthew Broderick comes full circle from his star-making performance in the John Hughes classic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Jim McAllister is the opposite of Ferris in every way, from his age and occupation to his personality. The Jim character and Broderick’s performance elevate this film from being just another high school movie.

Tammy very rightly asserts in her campaign speech that school elections only matter to the students who run because “Student Council President” looks good on a college application. For the student candidates, the election represents a stepping stone into a promising future. Jim, who feels trapped and emasculated by his own life, resents that sense of possibility and drive, which he sees particularly in the overzealous Tracy. As Jim’s life falls apart he becomes more and more desperate to deny Tracy her trajectory.


The visual techniques Payne uses, such as the freeze-frames, dissolves and wipes, as well as Tracy’s “Navajo Joe” musical cue feel like an organic part of telling the story rather than mere directorial flourishes. Visually, Payne associates Tracy with straight lines and Jim with circles, implying that Tracy can move forward while Jim will forever remain on the same path. Payne also uses a recurring image of trash, suggesting that people are forever making and cleaning up messes.

Payne’s script that he co-wrote with Jim Taylor is just as strong as the direction with one tiny exception: Tammy’s story feels strangely truncated. Jessica Campbell plays Tammy so beautifully that I want to see more of her. I want to know what happens to Tammy after she lies about tearing down her brother’s posters before the epilogue rolls around. Payne and Taylor’s script demonstrates confidence in actors’ ability to define characters, and they do not write more than the story demands. For example, Jim’s conflict with his wife is wonderfully low-key. Election also distinguishes itself as one of a handful of films whose narration is actually good and adds to the tone and flavor of the movie.

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