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.
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Alexander Payne|
|Produced by||Albert Berger
|Screenplay by||Alexander Payne
by Tom Perrotta
|Music by||Rolfe Kent|
|Edited by||Kevin Tent|
Bona Fide Productions
|Distributed by||Paramount Pictures|
|Box office||$14.9 million|
Jim McAllister is a beloved high school teacher living in the suburbs of Omaha, Nebraska, whose enthusiastic involvement in school activities 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 Novotny. When the affair was discovered, Dave was fired and divorced by his wife Linda; Tracy, however, walked away with her reputation unscathed.
Tracy announces to Jim (who is in charge of organizing the school's student government) that she is running for student body president, telling him they "will be spending a lot of time together." Jim finds Tracy's unbridled ambition and sexual manipulation repugnant. With Tracy appearing to have no opposition, Jim decides to teach Tracy a lesson in humility by encouraging another student, Paul Metzler, to enter the race. Paul is a polite and popular football player, who has been sidelined due to a broken leg, leaving him depressed. Jim convinces Paul to declare his candidacy, giving him new purpose. This serves to bring out Tracy's vindictiveness, as she resents Paul’s effortless popularity.
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 antagonize Tammy. In retaliation, Tammy decides to run for president as well, with a nihilistic platform that student government is a sham.
During a school assembly to hear the candidates' final campaign speeches, Tracy draws only polite applause while Paul initially receives a warm reception (despite giving a lackluster and halting speech), while Tammy delivers a defiant address in which she denounces the election and expresses her intention to dissolve the student government if elected. This rallies the student body to a standing ovation. As a result of her subversive speech, Tammy is suspended and her name removed from the ballot.
While working on a yearbook project at school two nights later, Tracy notices that one of her posters has come untaped from the wall. In her attempt to fix it, she accidentally rips the poster apart. In a fit of frustrated rage, she destroys and removes all of Paul's campaign posters. The following day when Jim confronts Tracy with his suspicion that she was responsible, Tracy claims innocence and threatens legal action against the school. However, Tammy falsely confesses to Tracy's crime even though she had witnessed Tracy disposing of the refuse by the town factory. Tammy is expelled and her parents enroll her in a private parochial school for girls, much to her delight.
On the day before the election, Jim pays a visit to Linda's house to help her with a home repair project, whereupon she initiates a physical relationship by kissing him. Linda then asks Jim to rent a motel room for an after school rendezvous, but she apparently has a change of heart and never shows up at the motel. When Jim drives over to Linda's house to see what happened, he heads to the back yard where he has the misfortune of being stung by a bee on his right eyelid, causing a severe allergic reaction. He later returns home to find Linda and his wife talking together. Knowing he's been caught, he spends a miserable night in his car.
The next morning — Election Day — Jim's right eyelid is completely shut and disfigured from the bee sting, but he must still oversee the counting of the election ballots at school. After all the ballots are tabulated, it turns out Tracy has won by a single vote. Ironically, Tracy's one vote margin of victory came about because Paul Metzler, feeling it would be somehow dishonorable to vote for himself, voted for Tracy instead. During the ballot-counting verification, Jim observes Tracy dancing around gleefully in the hall — one of the student vote counters had tipped her off that she had won before the official announcement of the count — and he decides to take matters into his own hands by secretly disposing of two of Tracy’s ballots and declaring Paul the winner. When a janitor discovers the two discarded ballots in the trash and presents them to the principal, Jim is forced to resign. To add insult to injury, Jim's wife kicks him out of the house when he tries to apologize for what happened with Linda.
Divorced and humiliated, Jim leaves Nebraska, ultimately choosing to fulfill his longtime dream of moving to New York City, where he becomes a tour guide at the American Museum of Natural History and begins dating a new woman. Tracy gets accepted into Georgetown University, while Paul gets into the University of Nebraska. Tammy couldn't be happier at her all-girls school, where she finds a new girlfriend. Toward the end of the film, Jim encounters Tracy Flick one last time on a trip to Washington, D.C., during which he happens to see her get into a limousine with a male politician. Disgusted by the thought that Tracy's climb up the ladder of success is the result of her calculating and manipulative nature, Jim impulsively hurls a supersize cup of soda at the limo before making a quick getaway.
The film ends with Jim speaking to a group of elementary school students on a field trip to the museum, refusing to respond to the raised hand of an overeager girl who reminds him of Tracy Flick.
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.