Election (1999): Alexander Payne’s Most Accomplished Satire, Starring Reese Witherspoon

In the satirical comedy Election, arguably Alexander Payne’s most accomplished and original film to date, a competitive high-school election becomes an allegory of the state of American politics and culture at the end of the century, focusing on such quintessentially American values as identity formation, individualism, competition, achievement, and happiness.

Based on the novel by Tom Perrotta, “Election” was co-written by Payne and his reliable partner, Jim Taylor.

Payne, who made an impressive debut in 1996 with the delicious satirical indie “Citizen Ruth” (starring Laura Dern), makes a quantum leap forward with his sophomore work, a more ambitious and encompassing satire, “Election.”

At the time of its release, some comparisons were made with Wes Anderson’ school satire, “Rushmore,” which came out before, but I think “Election” is a better picture, and with a wider scope and shrewder tone.

Like most of Payne’s films (“About Schmidt”), the tale is set in Omaha, Nebraska. Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) is a popular and well-respected instructor at George Washington Carver High School in Omaha, but lately he seems unhappy in his personal and professional life.

Jim’s anxieties build up until they reach a boiling point during the student elections. Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) is running for student body president, and she seems like the sort of girl who would win–she’s pretty, popular and active in all the right extra-curricular functions.

When the civics teacher asks his class for the definition of ethics and morals, consistent overachiever Tracy Flick immediately shoots her hand toward the ceiling. Although Tracy looks like she may pull her arm from its socket if she isn’t called on, McAllister tries hard to find some other student who knows the answers. He’s tired of her dominance. But, when others flub the answers, he’s left with no choice. With a barely perceptible roll of his eyes he reluctantly selects Tracy. She spits out the textbook definition from memory, but clearly doesn’t understand the meaning.

Tracy seems so perfect for the position that she’s running unopposed, which offends McAllister’s sense of democracy, not to mention the fact he doesn’t like her.

To that extent, Jim intervenes by persuading Paul Metzler (Chris Klein) to run against Tracy. Paul is not bright and is not qualified to be president. But he was a star of the school’s football team, before a leg injury sidelined him, and as such, he’s popular enough to make Tracy worry.

Just as the race begins to heat up, Paul’s sister, Tammy (Jessica Campbell) announces she is also running for office. Publicly, Tammy claims that the student elections are pointless—she promises that if she’s elected, she’ll eliminate them.

Privately, Tammy is out for revenge against her brother. Tammy is experimenting with her sexuality, and a recent fling with a bisexual classmate named Lisa (Frankie Ingrassia) ended when Lisa dumped her in favor of Paul.

As the picture’s star, Reese Witherspoon plays the anal-retentive Tracy Flick with a witty, multi-nuanced performance. When Tracy needs to be, she appears innocent, vulnerable and naively seductive. Usually, however, she’s as tough as nails. Dressed in conservative tweed skirts with dull, avocado-colored stockings, she is prim, proper and prissy.

When she concentrates on important things, like the proper taping of a sign, Tracy’s lips appear sealed with glue. When she needs to smile in order to get what wants, her lips retract, and a frozen smile appears. When she gets good news, she hops around like a jackrabbit.

Tracy had an affair the previous year with another teacher, causing him to lose his job. This put the fear of God into Jim. When Tracy flirtingly reminds him that, if she wins, they’ll spend a lot of time together, he knows he has to move fast—or else he is at the mercy of the amoral girl.

The subtle script takes a detached but upbeat attitude to its black comedy material. The leads all speak in frequent and insightful voice-over to explain their points of view. The editor freeze-frames the characters, especially Tracy, in the most unflattering ways. Tracy may project confidence and some wide-eyed innocence, but these freeze-frames show the ugliness that lies just below the surface.

The movie is replete of brilliant observations and clever scenes. For example, when a man has an affair, he goes to a motel, called the “American Family Inn,” ahead of time to make sure the room is proper and ready. He then places a rose inside the Gideon Bible in the nightstand drawer, should they need to read the sacred text after their secular assignation.

The pre-election prayer scene is both hilarious and illuminating. Tracy, Paul and Tammy are especially honest and revealing when talking to God in the privacy of their rooms.

There are surprises along the way, including an investigation involving campaign irregularities. The narrative is inventive enough to keep us guessing until the very end who will win the elections and what will be the precise fate of the various characters.

Oscar Nominations: 1

Screenplay (Adapted): Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor

Oscar Awards: None


Matthew Broderick (Jim McAllister)

Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon)

Paul Metzler (Chris Klein)

Tammy Metzler 9Jessica Campbell)

Dave Novotny (Mark Harelik)

Diane McAllister (Molly Hagan)

Linda Novotny (Delaney Driscoll)

Judith R. Flick (Colleen Camp)

Lisa Flanagan (Frankie Ingrassia)

Walt Hendricks (Phil Reeves)



Produced by Albert Berger, Ron Yerxa, David Gale, Keith Samples

Directed by Alexander Payne

Screenplay: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor, based on the novel by Tom Perrotta

Camera: James Glennon

Editor: Kevin Tent

Music: Rolfe Kent

Production Design: Jane Ann Stewart

Costume design: Wendy Chuck

Running time: 120 minutes