Election is a 1999 American black comedy-drama film directed and written by Alexander Payne and adapted by him and Jim Taylor from Tom Perrotta's 1998 novel of the same title. The plot revolves around a high school election and satirizes both suburban high school life and politics. The film stars Matthew Broderick as Jim McAllister, a popular high school social studies teacher in suburban Omaha, Nebraska, and Reese Witherspoon as Tracy Flick, around the time of the school's student body election. When Tracy qualifies to run for class president, McAllister believes she does not deserve the title and tries his best to stop her from winning.
Although a box office bomb, Election received critical acclaim. The film received an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, a Golden Globe nomination for Witherspoon in the Best Actress category, and the Independent Spirit Award for Best Film in 1999.
Jim McAllister is a high school teacher in the suburbs of Omaha, Nebraska whose enthusiastic involvement at school masks his frustration with other aspects of his life. Tracy Flick is an overachieving senior with a secret vindictive and sexual side. Earlier in the year, Tracy had an affair with another teacher, Jim's best friend Dave. As a result, Dave was fired and divorced by his wife Linda; Tracy, however, walked away without reprisal or punishment.
Tracy announces that she is running for student body president, which horrifies Jim, who is in charge of organizing the school's student government and truly despises Tracy. Set to run unopposed, Jim decides to teach Tracy a lesson in humility by introducing another candidate. Paul Metzler is a polite and popular football player at the school. However, Paul is unable to play football his final year due to a broken leg, leaving him depressed. Jim convinces him to register for the election, giving him new purpose. This serves to bring out Tracy's vindictiveness, as she is jealous of Paul’s ease at being successful and popular.
Meanwhile, Paul's younger sister Tammy is dumped by her lover, Lisa, who says that she is straight and was just "experimenting". Lisa quickly becomes Paul's new girlfriend and campaign manager, in part to anger Tammy. In retaliation, Tammy decides to run for president as well, with a platform that student government is a sham.
During a school assembly to hear their speeches, after Tracy draws only polite applause and Paul gets a strong reaction, Tammy delivers a defiant speech in which she denounces the election and that she will dissolve the student government if elected. This rallies the student body to a standing ovation. Fearing the student body will not vote, Tammy is suspended and kicked out of the election.
While at school two nights later, Tracy tries to fix one of her posters, but accidentally tears it. In a fit of uncharacteristic rage, she destroys all of Paul's campaign posters. The next day, she claims innocence and threatens legal action against the school when Jim accuses her. However, Tammy "confesses" to Tracy's crime after witnessing her disposing of the refuse by the town factory. She is then transferred to a private parochial school for girls, which was the original objective of her false confession.
Jim, who is secretly attracted to Linda, kisses her spontaneously the day before the election. Linda asks Jim to rent a motel room for a later rendezvous, but when he arrives later to pick her up, she isn't there. He returns home to find Linda and his wife talking together. Knowing he's been caught, he spends the night in his car.
The next morning, Jim oversees the counting of the election ballots at school. During this, he calls Linda several times, professing his love for her. Jim's wife kicks him out of the house when he tries to apologize. After all the ballots are counted, Tracy has won by one vote. After he sees Tracy dancing around excitedly in the hall - one of the vote-counting students has signalled surreptitiously that she has won before the official announcement of the count. In an act of rage, Jim secretly disposes of two of Tracy’s ballots. He then does a final count, and names Paul as the winner. When a janitor discovers the two discarded ballots and presents them to the principal, Jim resigns from his job.
Divorced and humiliated, Jim leaves Nebraska, ultimately choosing to fulfill a longtime dream of moving to New York City, becoming a tour guide at the American Museum of Natural History, where he meets a new woman. Tracy gets accepted into Georgetown University, while Paul gets into the University of Nebraska. Tammy loves her new school, where she has met her new girlfriend. Jim ends by saying he did see Tracy Flick one more time: After seeing her get into a limousine with a male politician, Jim is reminded of his friend Dave and what Tracy has done to get where she is. This causes Jim to hurl a soda cup at the limo, then make a quick getaway.
In New York, Jim enjoys teaching at the museum but an elementary student reminds him of Tracy.
Director Alexander Payne had become a fan of the novel by Tom Perrotta on which the film is based; the novel's rights were sold to Payne in January 1997. The novel was inspired by two key events. The first was the 1992 Bush vs. Clinton election campaign, in which Ross Perot entered as a third party candidate (a move echoed by Tammy Metzler). The second was an incident at Memorial High School in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, in which a pregnant student was elected homecoming queen, but staff announced a different winner and burned the ballots to cover it up. Payne specifically had in mind Matthew Broderick for the part due to his role as popular student Ferris in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. It would be an ironic twist on his best-known character, as he would now be the authority figure - a teacher who is respected by students.
The film uses a number of stylized techniques in its storytelling, particularly through the use of freeze frames, flashbacks and voiceovers, which allow sections of the narrative to be delivered from the points of view of the four main characters.
Much of the film was shot in and around the Omaha area including Dundee, Elkhorn, Bellevue, Carter Lake, and Papillion. Other scenes were filmed in New York (including the college scene, which was actually filmed at Adelphi University on Long Island) and Washington D.C. Production shut down for about a month when a freak fall snowstorm hit Omaha in October 1997, knocking down trees and power lines.
Omaha locations used during production include:
Election was a box office bomb as it grossed only $14.9 million against a budget of $25 million.
The film, however, was met with critical acclaim. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds a rating of 92%, based on 105 reviews, with an average rating of 7.8/10. The critical consensus reads, "Election successfully combines dark humor and intelligent writing in this very witty and enjoyable film." On Metacritic, the film has a score of 83 out of 100, based on 33 reviews, indicating "universal acclaim".
Roger Ebert gave the film three and a half stars out of four, praising Witherspoon and Payne, and saying, "...here is a movie that is not simply about an obnoxious student, but also about an imperfect teacher, a lockstep administration, and a student body that is mostly just marking time until it can go out into the world and occupy valuable space".
Election is ranked #61 on Bravo's "100 Funniest Movies" and #9 on Entertainment Weekly's list of the "50 Best High School Movies", while Witherspoon's performance was ranked at #45 on the list of the "100 Greatest Film Performances of All Time" by Premiere. According to Payne, it is also President Barack Obama's favorite political film.
Barack Obama has told me twice that it’s his favorite political film.