d. Alexander Payne (1999)
The Criterion Collection

CriterionCast recently released its annual Criterion “year in review” episode, and I was again pleased to participate (you can check it out here). During our conversation, David Blakeslee zoomed out a bit and looked at the releases as they fit in the context of Donald Trump’s first year as President. Several of Criterion’s 2017 releases, though the films themselves are decades old, explore cultural and political issues that have painfully surfaced this past year. One David mentioned, and one that stands out to me as particularly relevant in its commentary on Trump’s America, both pre- and post-election, is Alexander Payne’s Election, a 1999 satire based on Tom Perrotta’s 1998 novel. This film takes us through an election for the student body president at a high school in middle America — suburban Nebraska, to be specific. In it we have an overachieving young woman, resented and desired (resented because desired? desired because she is resented?) by men who have somehow achieved a kind of authority in this world and who view her as a distinct threat to the world they rule. It’s a shallow world, but they’re determined to maintain their illusion that it’s the best one for everyone.

The central conflict of the film is this: Tracy Flick (played by Reese Witherspoon) is a high school junior preparing to become student body president. When the film begins, she is setting up a table, everything perfectly organized, well before anyone has arrived at school.

With the slogan “Sign Up For Tomorrow Today!” Tracy begins her campaign. Bright and capable, articulate and incisive, dedicated and deliberate, Tracy is the natural fit. No other student is even interested in running, most due to apathy, sure, but some because they see this as Tracy’s just desserts.

Also arriving at the school early, but still after Tracy has set up shop, is Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick). McAllister is the civics teacher, and he’s in charge of student government. His initial encounter with Tracy this day is cordial. She’s excited that the day to collect signatures has arrived. He’s doing the teacherly thing and encouraging her to have a good day. But he’s holding back. Is it because it’s strange to see a student so determined? Is Tracy a bit of a comical but admirable anomaly? Perhaps we think this as McAllister walks away.

And that does seem to be the case, at first. In a series of voice-overs from Tracy and McAllister (which work beautifully in the film, and which eventually involve all of the main characters), we learn more about their relationship. McAllister is trying to teach a lesson the difference between ethics and morals to an uninterested and inept classroom. Tracy has her hand in the air, anxious to share her (presumably astute) insights, but McAllister avoids calling on her. As we get in his head, we do see that he considers her an anomaly, but it’s much darker than that.

He’s not at all proud of this young woman. Her intelligence is, to him, weird and even reprehensible. He doesn’t like her at all. And yes, disturbingly but also importantly as the film explores these dark corridors, her budding sexuality plays a central role, a role McAllister cannot directly acknowledge as it pertains to him, but one he explores since one of his best friends, Dave Novotny (Mark Harelik) a fellow middle-aged teacher, was sacked the year before because he had an affair with the young woman.

Novotny, using his position as the year book advisor, tells Tracy how smart she is, how superior she is . . . how attractive she is. He brags to McAllister about their love life. McAllister is disgusted, telling Novotny that it’s all wrong, immoral, and he could go to jail. And yet: in this rendition of the story, it’s McAllister who’s telling us what happened. He doesn’t outrightly say it, but he blames Tracy. Novotny was dumb, sure, but Tracy was the reason his friend is gone, and Tracy is still there.

Still, I like that though McAllister is telling the story as if Tracy were at the very least equally at fault when this older man took advantage of her, Payne’s framing shows how leering Novotny is:

This is the foundation of the film, the foundation of the conflict that lies latent between McAllister and Tracy. And in an attempt to shove Tracy out, McAllister recruits the likable but stupid jock Paul Metzler (Chris Klein) to run against her.

Tracy does not take this kindly (and Payne, by showing Tracy on the bus and Paul by his new truck, throws in some nice class analysis as well):

Paul Metzler really is an idiot. Eerily, in his campaign speech the best he can say for himself is that, as everyone knows who saw him throw that TD pass last year, he knows how to win. At least Paul is a likable idiot. But, an idiot nonetheless, he’s still a pawn in a larger conflict. This conflict doesn’t involve just Tracy and McAllister, though. No, Paul’s younger sister Tammy is also involved in her own conflict, one in which Paul is being used, and she decides to run for president as well. Her campaign speech? That she’s going to dismantle the student government.

Election — the novel and the film — originally came to be during the Clinton administration, so many of the issues it explores and satirizes have been around for decades. Though inspired by the 1992 Presidential Election, when third-party candidate Ross Perot threw his hat in the ring, and timely when released due to the Monica Lewinsky scandal which was just breaking in 1998, Election plays much of its criticism as humor. With quick editing, the film often subverts its more serious themes with a comic punchline, one that is often provocative.

I remember well watching this in college and listening to my male friends hyuck it up when the men in the film deal with their major sexual hangups. I remember the women watching it with us, sitting in shock. It’s an uncomfortable memory. Watching it now, it’s hard to laugh. It’s turned darker even as it’s turned more brilliant.

Here we have, deliberately, Ferris Bueller grown up into the authority figure he once disdained. Here is the privileged man who always saw himself as greater-than trying to maintain control over his pathetic castle. Here is a smart woman who recognizes how pathetic that castle is, willing to put herself in front of deadly fire in order to instigate some kind of change, which brings institutional wrath down from the makeshift scaffolding above. It’s been nearly two decades since this film was made, and it’s terrifying how much more real it feels today.

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