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Empire Magazine Greatest Movies List - #389: Election

Alexander Payne’s 1999 comedy “Election” tells the story of three candidates competing for the office of president. One is a young woman with a giant ego who believes it is her destiny to join the ranks of great politicians. The second is a naïve but well-meaning man who was persuaded to run just to stop the first candidate. The third candidate is running as a joke to denounce the electoral process. All of these potential candidates could be real-life politicians, except for the fact they are running for office at a high school in Omaha, Nebraska.

When I first saw the movie playing on TV in 2000 I didn’t really care about elections, high school or otherwise. I was studying in a high school in Peru, but couldn’t care less about who was high school president. As far as political elections, I was living in one of the most corrupt countries on Earth, and I had just witnessed the American charade of Bush vs. Gore. Yet today, after having voted a few times for both Canadian provincial and federal elections, after having seen the circus of the 2008 American elections, and after having seen countless hours of “The Daily Show,” I find elections fascinating. George Carlin once claimed elections are a charade, but if that’s true, it’s one of the funniest versions of the game.

The frontrunner in “Election” is Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), an overachieving senior who aims to be the next Hillary Clinton. On paper she seems like the perfect student: she works hard, is ambitious, and actually cares about the issues. But her teacher Jim McCallister (Mathew Broderick) knows there is something beneath the surface. Tracy had an affair with McCallister’s best friend Dave, who was fired and divorced by his wife Linda (Delaney Driscoll). Tracy on the other hand, still walks the school halls unscathed.

Shuddering at the thought of what she could do next, McCallister believes it is his duty to stop Tracy in her tracks. He convinces popular football player Paul Metzler (Chris Klein) to run against her. Paul is unable to play football due to a leg injury, so Jim’s proposal gives him a new goal for the school year. It isn’t as though he has to work hard to achieve that goal: immensely popular with his fellow students, Paul barely has to promise anything during his speech in order to get applause.

The third candidate runs not out of conviction but out of spite. Paul’s sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell) is a closeted lesbian who is angered to see her first love Lisa (Frankie Ingrassia) leave her for Paul. In retaliation she aims to stop her brother’s election and possibly dismantle the entire student body government if she is ever elected. The second part of the plan actually gets a lot of support from her fellow students. For McCallister, all that matters is that Tracy never gets any more power.

The role of McCallister is a good one for Broderick. He does not have the face of a villain, and when he explains his motives to the audience he makes himself sound like the hero of the story. Yet as events unfold, it becomes increasingly difficult to see him in that light. For one thing, even if Dave was his best friend, McCallister has no qualms about going after Dave’s ex-wife Linda (Delaney Driscoll) even if he is himself married. Then on the day of the big election, when it all comes down to two votes, McCallister decides to toss away the votes in order to elect the candidate he wants.

There you have it. A female candidate, an airhead who is only running because someone told him it was a good idea, a candidate who wants to dismantle the government, and voter fraud. Yes, “Election” is set in a high school, but age these candidates by twenty years and they could be running for the real thing.

It makes me wonder whom I would vote for out of this lot. Tracy is so qualified she could probably run the town, let alone the school. On the other hand, Paul is such a decent guy that once in the ballot booth he decides he cannot vote for himself. Then again Tammy’s plan of dismantling the government might not have been such a bad idea. It is a rather extreme version of Ron Paul’s ideas of small government.

How about I do what most people do? Flip a coin.


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