Election (1999)

Directed by Alexander Payne


Election, like several Alexander Payne movies, follows a fidgety, petty protagonist who causes his own problems.  Like Warren Schmidt in About Schmidt, Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) isn’t satisfied with his life.  When we meet him through an extended voiceover (like with several other characters) he claims to be extremely happy with his job as a highly involved high school teacher, yet his obsession with taking down student Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) is disheartening, twisted and amusing.

Tracy is the girl who raises her hand every time in class.  She has an answer for everything, and she has a plan for how her life should go.  Through her own voice over, however, she demonstrates some self-awareness about herself and the way her mother pampers her.  Knowing that her mother treats her a certain way but not using that to look within herself somehow makes Tracy more frightening.  She feels manipulative, as if she’s trying to game the system but only by following the rules.  This is why Jim loathes her, after all.  Well, it’s this (as we’re first told) and the fact that she had an affair with a teacher friend of his (which we learn second).

This affair, told quickly and early, is a surprise, not only because of how blunt the conversation is between Jim and his friend, Dave, but also because it completely goes against everything we would expect from the Tracy archetype.  It would be like it Lisa Simpson started dating Principal Skinner so she could….. it doesn’t matter.  The point is it’s a challenge to what we expect Tracy to be.

Her relationship with Dave the teacher, though, also seems to humanize her as he points out that she has no friends before serenading her with creepy compliments designed to get her in bed with him.  Later, in a conversation between her and Jim, it seems clear that Tracy had been he dominant person in her relationship with Dave (she remarks that he became too gooey), but there is part of her that wants to feel a connection with someone else.  Throughout the story, though, she just suppresses this side of her.

So everything makes Tracy feel isolated, both in her own behavior and how others treat her.  She is running for school board president unopposed, and Jim decides to take her down by convincing Paul Metzler (Chris Klein), a popular athlete, to run against her.  It’s a good idea, and Jim presents Paul with a great argument, explaining how it’ll give Paul something to do after he broke his leg, effectively ending his athletic career, but it’s all self-serving.  Jim never cares about Paul.

Paul is the nicest guy, and he’s incredibly dim, which only makes him more endearing.  He wishes Tracy the best, but she continues to detest him or at least the type of person he seems to be.  It’s more about what he represents and how that opposes everything she strives for but probably secretly envies.

When Paul’s sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell), gets dumped by her friend/possible girlfriend, she is heartbroken, and Paul doesn’t notice.  Then her friend, Lisa, tries to get back at Tammy by sleeping with Paul.  Of course, Paul has no idea that he’s being used to send a message to Tammy, just like he has no idea that Jim McAllister is using him to bring down Tracy.

Deeply hurt, Tammy decides to oppose Paul in the election, making it a three person race.  Tracy begins to unravel as Paul gets some support and then Tammy gets even more support.  Wilting under pressure, Tracy gets aggressive, and when Jim confronts her about tearing down Paul’s posters, they have a showdown of a conversation, in which everything seems to come up to the surface (including her affair with Dave).  The only thing Jim doesn’t bring up is his outright disgust for Tracy.  She seems to view him the same way, and if I remember correctly, her voice over explained how she pities him.

Both Tracy and Jim are spot on in their analyses of the other person, but that doesn’t make them any better.  They both have a set of ideals, but these ideals are misguided and selfish.  Jim wants to make himself feel better despite having a nice life.  He’s married, and he and his wife are trying to get pregnant.

His focus on Tracy appears to have begun with her affair with his friend, Dave and the subsequent revelation by the school about that affair, resulting in Dave’s firing.  Jim’s anger with Tracy suggests he blames her more than Dave, though he is rather frank with his friend about the problems with the relationship.  Still, with Dave out of the picture, Jim begins spending a lot of time with Dave’s ex-wife, Linda.  He then has an affair with her and tells her he loves her, becoming similarly gooey to Dave.  None of this would have happened if Dave hadn’t had a relationship with Tracy and then been found out.

I suppose the point of all this is to say that Jim’s frustrations with Tracy are deep-seated and reflective of frustrations he has with himself, clearly.  The image of a middle-aged man expressing hate towards a student is disturbing, yet oddly relatable.  We all have people we unjustly hate, and Tracy herself isn’t very likable, so it’s easy to side with Jim, also because we know he’s the protagonist, and he’s Ferris friction’ Bueller.  I may have read this somewhere, and it makes too much sense, but I think Broderick’s casting in the movie is meant to play off the image we have of him in our heads as that famous character who challenges high school authority and plays by his own rules.  Here he’s a button-down, straight edge, boring teacher whom we first meet struggling through a gate by the high school track, as if to make it immediately clear that he’s a caged animal.

So we sort of like Jim, and we don’t like Tracy.  Then Jim’s actions become more unsettling, and we see how personally Tracy takes her defeat in the election.  Paul wins by one vote, but only after Jim throws out two of Tracy’s votes, the pettiest of petty acts of revenge.

Of course this is uncovered, and Paul loses by one vote.  What’s important is that Paul voted for Tracy and not himself.

So Jim’s life falls apart.  It’s interesting that of two critical moments in his unravelling, the one shown second (and thus to be more important) is his meddling in the high school election and not his wife learning about his affair.  The order makes sense narratively, because Jim’s frustrations about being found out by his wife help influence him to tamper with the election, and it emphasizes how absurd it is that this man’s life is falling apart in part due to a measly high school election that doesn’t matter (as third party candidate Tammy helpfully points out).

High school elections are silly because they often follow the template of a presidential election (except for maybe the debates), but the students probably don’t care who wins.  Tracy takes this all very seriously, even delivering a very presidential speech in which she calls out specific students (like Joe the Plumber), and Tammy shits on the entire charade.

Tammy doesn’t play by the rules, and this offends Tracy who loves the rules.  The rules are her only friend, and so far they have been working in their favor.  Jim’s anger towards her probably reflects a belief that the rules never helped him.

Anyways, Jim is fired and divorced, and he moves to New York where he becomes an instructor of sorts at the Museum of Natural History and meets a new woman.  He explains how satisfied he is with his life, and when we see how cramped his apartment is, his supposed happiness is undercut by a graphic that shows the extremely high rent he pays for a glorified closet.  This last joke serves to show that he’s not as happy as he seems, just like in the beginning of the film back in Nebraska.  Jim is a man whose pettiness is part of his core.  It just manifests itself in the people he chooses to zero in on.

While in D.C. for a conference, Jim sees Tracy (who is a student at Georgetown though having a harder time fitting in than she imagined), meeting with a Senator.  Jim’s views of her haven’t changed, and he throws his drink at the car she gets into before he runs away.

The film’s ending shows how flawed each of these characters are.  Though Jim sees Tracy appearing to be extremely successful (by meeting with important people), we see how lonely she is in the dorms, yelling at other students to be quiet while she tries to get some sleep.  We also see Jim leading a group of kids through the museum, and when he asks if anyone has a question, a young girl’s hand flies into the air.  He knows she is Tracy 2.0, and people like her will never go away.  More importantly, though, his pettiness and discontent with his own life will never go away, meaning he will continue to see the world the same way, finding people to attribute his unhappiness to.


Tammy Metzler gets kicked out of school for her misbehavior and sent to a private school where she meets a girl that she thinks she’s in love with.  This last scene of her plays off of a scene early on in which she described how in love she and Lisa were.  That proved not to be the case, of course, and this ending, similar to Jim’s and Tracy’s, suggest that Tammy is headed down the same road as before.

The only person who seems happy, genuinely happy, is Paul.  He never realized what was going on around him during the election, so none of that mess ever affected him.  Even when Lisa ditches him for a teammate, he doesn’t seem mad.  Sure Paul may not have the brightest future, but he seems happy.  Like the other characters, he’s probably doomed to repeat old patterns, but those patterns have never made him unhappy, like the other three characters.  Like the saying goes, ignorance is bliss.


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