USA 1999

Film still for Election

Reviewed by Geoffrey Macnab


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

The US Midwest, the present, Tracy Flick, star pupil at George Washington Carver High, is standing unopposed for president of the student government. Civics teacher Jim McAllister has a grudge against Tracy because of her part in a sex scandal which saw fellow teacher Dave Novotny sacked. McAllister encourages high-school football hero Paul Metzler to stand against her. Paul's sister Tammy also joins the race after being dumped by her girlfriend (who, to spite Tammy, has become Paul's girlfriend and campaign manager). One weekend, Tracy loses her temper putting up posters in the school corridor and tears down the election banners. There is a school inquiry. Tammy takes the blame - even though she knows Tracy was responsible - and is suspended. Her parents decide to enrol her in a strict, all-girl convent school instead. As the election draws nearer, Jim has a brief fling with Dave Novotny's estranged wife Linda. Although he thinks he's in love, she dismisses the affair as a mistake and tells Jim's wife about it.

Jim oversees the election count; Tracy has won by one vote. Jim surreptitiously throws two votes for Tracy into a wastepaper basket and declares Paul the winner. Tracy is devastated. The school janitor finds the missing votes. The election result is overturned. Jim resigns in disgrace. His marriage breaks up. He heads to New York, where he gets a job working in a museum. While visiting Washington DC he sees Tracy climbing into a car with a Republican politician whose assistant she has become. He throws his drink at the car and runs off.


"It's like my mom said: the weak are always trying to sabotage the strong," proclaims Tracy Flick, the foot-stamping, cupcake-baking overachiever whose battle to become class president forms the backdrop to Election. As demure as Pippi Longstocking and as sanctimonious as Tipper Gore, Tracy works her heart out. She's also the only one in class who can explain the difference between morality and ethics, but that doesn't change the fact that she's a little monster. If Billy Wilder had been assigned to make a teen comedy, he might well have come up with a film as witty and sour as this. Alexander Payne's second feature (after Citizen Ruth), Election is a wonderfully acidulous satire which uses its high-school setting to make some barbed points about US politics and culture in general. We're offered a presidential campaign in microcosm, complete with dirty tricks, smears, a hint of a sex scandal, and even some unseemly vandalism.

Payne manages to make us see Tracy through the eyes of the one person who detests her - her teacher, Jim McAllister. Not that it is immediately apparent that the film is biased against her. The screenplay (co-written by Payne and Jim Taylor) seems scrupulously even-handed. In voiceovers running throughout the film, all the candidates are given the chance to reflect on the events surrounding the fateful election campaign. The mainstream is represented by high-school football hero Paul Metzler, a genial, simple-minded oaf with (so he's told) a big penis, who doesn't think it's right to vote for himself. We hear from the counterculture in the form of Paul's sister Tammy, a nihilistic lesbian whose slogans "Who cares?" and "What does it matter anyway?" appeal infinitely more to the voters than Tracy's pious homilies. Tracy, for her part, represents ambition, self-help and "the American way". (Sure enough, she turns out to be a Republican.) The most compelling voice, though, belongs not to the candidates but to the teacher overseeing the campaign.

At GWC High, McAllister is all that stands between Tracy and absolute power. His hackles rise every time she shoots up her arm in class. US politics is about checks and balances, he tells his class, and checking Tracy's career becomes his full-time obsession. After his experiences as a squeaky-clean juvenile lead in such films as Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Project X, it must surely have been liberating for Matthew Broderick to play a character as crumpled and seedy as McAllister, a man who keeps porn films in the basement. He suffers every manner of indignity. He is spat at. His car is bespattered with mud. He's stung in the eye by a bee. When he cheats on his wife, Payne makes him look all the more absurd by showing him groping with Linda Novotny from the baby's point of view. Still, he's as close as Election gets to a hero. He's the one who upholds democratic values - even if it means cheating. "Do you want an apple or an orange? That's democracy," he explains to a bewildered-looking Paul as he tries to ensure Tracy isn't elected unopposed.

Election turns the usual conventions of the high-school comedy on their head. There's no prom night. Payne doesn't labour the tension between the jocks and the nerds, or try to show school life from the rebel's perspective. The film may have been made by MTV, but its fairground-style music (by Rolfe Kent) sounds as if it were borrowed from some old Mack Sennett comedy. Just occasionally, we feel flickers of sympathy for Tracy. Nobody likes her much and her all-consuming ambition means she is never satisfied. Witherspoon, last seen as the goodie two-shoes in Cruel Intentions, plays her brilliantly, screwing up her features and scowling when things go against her and smiling insincerely at all other times.

The funniest moments are often the cruellest. When gawky teacher Dave Novotny bursts into tears as he realises his affair with Tracy has ruined his career, the scene is played for laughs. (Perhaps Novotny deserves his punishment for using Lionel Richie's 'Three Times a Lady' as a seduction theme.) Jim's humiliations are also milked for comedy. The humour may be vicious, but there's also a strong vein of pathos running through the film. Payne's sympathies are with the underdog. Ultimately, it is success - at least in the way it is achieved by Tracy - which seems shabby.


Albert Berger
Ron Yerxa
David Gale
Keith Samples
Alexander Payne
Jim Taylor
Based on the novel by
Tom Perrotta
Director of Photography
James Glennon
Kevin Tent
Production Designer
Jane Ann Stewart
Rolfe Kent
©Paramount Pictures Corporation
Production Companies
Paramount Pictures presents an MTV Films production in association with Bona Fide Productions
Executive Producer
Van Toffler
Jacobus Rose
Jim Burke
Production Co-ordinators
Holly Balbinder
NY/Washington Crew:
Douglas Moe
Unit Production Managers
Victor Ho
NY/Washington Crew:
Alysse Bezahler
Location Managers
John Latenser
Ann Yamamoto
Katherine Dorrer
Additional Locations
Kai Ephron
Post-production Supervisor
Pamela Winn Barnett
Production Liaison
Momita Sengupta
2nd Unit Director
George Parra
Assistant Directors
George Parra
Sean McCarron
Shari Hanger
2nd Unit:
Sean McCarron
Shari Hanger
NY/Washington Crew:
Randy Barbee
Marc Garland
Lucia Burns
Script Supervisors
Rebecca Robertson
NY/Washington Crew:
Peggy Sutton
Lisa Beach
John Jackson
Carrie Houk
Barbara Harris
NY/Washington Crew:
Ellen Parks
2nd Unit Directors of Photography
Casey Hotchkiss
Radan Popovic
Camera Operators
Casey Hotchkiss
2nd Unit:
Andy Anderson
16mm Footage
2nd Unit:
Jim Taylor
Digital Visual Effects
Graphic Artist
Nathan Carlson
Art Director
Tim Kirkpatrick
Set Decorators
Renee Davenport
NY/Washington Crew:
Tyndall Arrasmith
Costume Designer
Wendy Chuck
Costume Supervisors
Rikke Rosbaek
NY/Washington Crew:
Charlotte Corday
Set Costumer
NY/Washington Crew:
Jill Tarlow
Make-up Artists
James Ryder
NY/Washington Crew:
Nikki Ledermann
Bee Sting Prosthetics
Steve Johnson's XFX
Hair Stylists
Denise Fischer
NY/Washington Crew:
Kyra Panchenko
Title Design
Victoria Vaus
Cinema Research Corporation
Optical Supervisor
Bruce Cardozo
Bill Stromberg
Concert Master
Bruce Dukov
Tony Blondal
Additional Orchestration
Kerry Wikstrom
Music Supervisor
Dondi Bastone
Music Editors
Richard Ford
Tom Kramer
Recording Mixer
John Vigran
"The Jody Grind" by Horace Silver, performed by Quintetto X; "Matchmaker, Matchmaker" by Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick; "Foxey Lady" by Jimi Hendrix; "Find a Way to Win" by/performed by Tim Carroll; "Three Times a Lady" by Lionel Richie, performed by The Commodores; "Born to Be with You" by Don Robertson, performed by The Damnations TX; "Rue Paul", "Marcello McAllister", "El Tostado", "Ai grandota", "Leisure Suit Riot" by Joey Altruda, performed by Joey Altruda and The Cocktail Crew; "Navajo Joe Main Theme" by/performed by Ennio Morricone; "This Road I'm Traveling" by Neil Halstead, performed by Mojave 3; "Right in the Back of Your Mind" by Edgar Jones, performed by Spacehog; "Gonna Get Along without Ya' Now" by Milton Kellem, performed by Patience and Prudence; "La Piscine couverte" by Elinor Blake, Andy Paley, performed by April March; "Get Set" by Daniel James, Tim Wild, Jason Singh, Tim Watson, performed by TaxiRide; "Only God Knows" by Scott Bricklin, Brian Bricklin, performed by Martin's Dam; "With My Eyes Wide Open I'm Dreaming" by Mack Gordon, Harry Revel, performed by Mandy Barnett; "It's a Beautiful Day" by Deke Dickerson, performed by The 1001 Guitars of Deke Dickerson featuring Meghan Ivey; "Jennifer Juniper" by Donovan Leitch, performed by Donovan; "Rising Sign" by Andy Bell, performed by Hurricane #1;"Drown in Small Cowgirl's Boots" by Dave Burris, performed by Jolene; "If You'll Be the Teacher" by Sue Miller, Ned Miller, performed by Mandy Barnett;"God Whispers to Constantine" by Rolfe Kent, performed by Frank Morocco
Sound Mixers
Jon Ailetcher
NY/Washington Crew:
Antonio Arroyo
Technical Supervision
Patrick Stoltz
Rich Toenes
Bill Johnston
Re-recording Mixers
Patrick Cyccone Jr
Michael Keller
Drew Webster
Eric Flickinger
Supervising Sound Editors
Frank Gaeta
Scott Wolf
Dialogue Editors
Daniel Irwin
Laura R. Harris
Fred Stahly
Kimaree Long
Lauren Stevens
Sound Effects Editors
Scott Sanders
Mark Hunshiki Choi
Craig Jaeger
Loop Group:
Holly Dorff
Andrea Taylor
Anneliese Goldman
Noreen Reardon
Matt Adler
Steve Alterman
Daamen Krall
Catherine Cavadini
Kate Carlin
Barbara Iley
David Kramer
Jeff Fischer
Vernon Scott
Charles Bazaldua
David Randolph
Dana Porter
Ron Bedrosian
Daniel Irwin
Laura R. Harris
Fred Stahly
Kimaree Long
Lauren Stevens
Jim Moriana
Jeff Wilhoit
Gregg Zimmerman
Nerses Gezalyan
Stunt Co-ordinator
Gary Wayton
Matthew Broderick
Jim McAllister
Reese Witherspoon
Tracy Flick
Chris Klein
Paul Metzler
Jessica Campbell
Tammy Metzler
Mark Harelik
Dave Novotny
Delaney Driscoll
Linda Novotny
Molly Hagan
Diane McAllister
Colleen Camp
Judith R. Flick
Frankie Ingrassia
Lisa Flanagan
Phil Reeves
Principal Walt Hendricks
Matt Malloy
Vice-Principal Ron Bell
Jeanine Jackson
Jo Metzler
Holmes Osborne
Dick Metzler
Loren Nelson
Emily Martin
girl in crisis
Jonathan Marion
Amy Falcone
classroom students
Matt Justesen
'eat me' boy
Nick Kenny
'eat me' boy's buddy
Brian Tobin
Christa Young
adult video actors
David Wenzel
Tracy's friend Eric
Joel Parks
Jerry Slavin
Larry Kaiser
chemistry teacher
Marilyn Tipp
Carver office lady
Jeannie Brayman
faculty ballot-giver
Nick D'Agosto
Larry Fouch
James Devney
motel clerk
L. Carmen Novoa
Spanish teacher
Jason Paige
Matt Golden
Heather Koenig
kids in Georgetown hall
Jillian Crane
United International Pictures (UK) Ltd
9,254 feet
102 minutes 49 seconds
Colour by
Consolidated Film Industries/DeLuxe
Super 35 [2.35:1]
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011