Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Matthew Broderick, Reese Witherspoon, Chris Klein, Jessica Campbell
Director:  Alexander Payne
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Widescreen 2.35:1, 16x9 Enhanced
Studio:  Paramount
Features:  Director’s Commentary
Length:  103 Minutes
Release Date:  October 19, 1999

Film ***1/2

I have to admit, it was kind of a cultural shock for me at first…I spent my high school years with the indelible image of Matthew Broderick as Ferris Beuller, the coolest and most ultimate antagonist against the high school system.  Now, seeing him in Election, with a touch of gray on the sides and playing the kind of teacher that Ferris would have eaten for lunch…well, the times do change, don’t they?

And Broderick is terrific in this film as Jim McAllister.  He’s the kind of teacher that has probably just about reached that big turning point, between being good at and self-satisfied with his work and beginning to realize that probably 90% or better of his students don’t give a damn about what he spews forth year in and year out.  He is more or less the protagonist of the picture, by virtue of having the most screen time, and letting the audience see many more factors of his life.  The antagonist, therefore, is his student Tracy Flick (Witherspoon).  Tracy is the kind of high school over-achiever that may remind you of Max from Rushmore, but there is a huge difference.  Max achieved out of a love for his school.  Tracy does it for self centered reasons.  No matter what the category, she wants her name at the top.

This brings us to the election of the title, in which Tracy seems to be running unopposed for student council president.  And like any professional politician, she says the right things, smiles for the cameras, all the while thinking not about what she can do for the school, but what the school can do for her.  And suddenly, McAllister decides that this little blonde kewpie doll juggernaut must be derailed.  (Two reasons are suggested…one, a teaching comrade of his lost his job after an ill advised affair with Tracy, and two, McAllister seems to want to do the same thing deep down inside).  So, he recruits Paul (Klein), an injured and popular football player with a good heart and a rather soft head, to run against her.

Well, as far as Tracy is concerned, this means war.  And the movie never lets you forget that the battle is not between Tracy and Paul for president, but between Tracy and McAllister.  Soon, it gets pretty ugly, and even funnier, especially when Paul’s outcast sister Tammy (Campbell) enters the election on the promise to do nothing but get rid of the council so that students don’t have to participate in another stupid election.  And she seems to be winning.

As mentioned, I couldn’t help but think back to Rushmore a little bit…I never appreciated how much that story was really told in the spirit of innocence, until I saw Election.  This is a biting black comedy; a searing satire that pulls no punches.  These people, with the exception of Paul, all rather unpleasant, though they do manage to win our sympathies from time to time.  This is probably the best dark comedy about high school since Heathers.

Director and co-writer Alexander Payne has created a film with a lot of intelligence.  Irony is always at work here, from the opening moments where dastardly deeds are being recounted in flashback form while Tracy gives a perky classroom response about ethics and morals.  The way he edits his film, with often harsh contrasts produced, adds to the humor in ways only films can achieve.  And often, it’s just plain funny to watch the characters do what they do, knowing ahead of time why they do them.

The idea of destiny is introduced early in the picture, and one gets the sense that the ‘D’ word is at play in the story.  McAllister is just a guy who seems destined to lose, and Tracy to win.  Both do rather underhanded and unscrupulous things over the course of this campaign, but I don’t think I need to tell you who pays for their deeds and who doesn’t.  McAllister has such bad luck, he even gets stung by a bee.  On his eyelid.  Ouch.

I’ve mentioned Broderick’s great work, but a lot of credit must also go to Reese Witherspoon, who in my opinion is one of the most talented young actresses working today.  Gary Ross, director of Pleasantville, paid her the ultimate compliment when he remarked that she was the only actor he had seen who completely loses every trace of herself and disappears into a character.  She brings just the right notes to Tracy.  She smiles and beams with enthusiasm, but never lets you forget for a moment that you don’t want to cross her. 

And in the end, isn’t it all much ado about nothing?  What do these school elections really mean, anyway?  Student council presidents don’t have any real power in school administration…it’s just a nice footnote to put on a college resume.  In a sense, that’s really the core of the comedy in the film…the way the characters resort to such ugliness over a rather meaningless thing is petty, immature…and rather fun to watch.

Video ***1/2

This is a quality anamorphic transfer from Paramount, with excellent color rendering and no grain.  Most foreground images are sharp and clear…the only complaint is that occasionally, items in deep focus seem a bit soft.  This is by no means a major concern, since most of the time nothing really leads your eyes back that far…it’s just me scrutinizing a bit. 

Audio ***

The 5.1 soundtrack is crystal clear, with a few moments of energy that bring it to life, along with some good music.  Not much discretion to the rear stage or the .1 channel, but overall, the surrounds create an ambient and spatial listening experience.

Features **

The disc contains a commentary track by director Payne.


Election is dark comedy at its best.  It’s every bit as smart as it is satirical, biting without being mean (or, more correctly, mean without justification).  It takes the simple premise of a high school election, an event that really doesn’t have that much importance in and of itself, and turns it into a battleground where the events on the surface don’t always reflect the seediness we see for ourselves.  Best of all, it’s funny.  VERY funny.