Director: Alexander Payne
Screenwriters: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor
Starring: Matthew Broderick, Reese Witherspoon, Chris Klein, Jessica Campbell, Phil Reeves
Alexander Payne’s debut feature Citizen Ruth showed that he was a filmmaker with a lot of potential ahead of him. His 2nd film, the Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick led Election, really kicked his career into its highest gear and earned a level of acclaim that would follow him through to 2013’s Nebraska. While not a commercial success, Election certainly marked a significant step for Payne, and the considerable acclaim and accolades that would follow all stem from this notable 1999 black comedy.
Election marked Payne’s first major awards nominations, the Golden Globes and Oscars nominating him in their respective Best Adapted Screenplay categories. Payne would go on to enjoy Oscar success with both Sideways and The Descendants in the same category in the decade to come, Election being the catalyst for a reputation few could rival on the page during the 2000s.
Kim Newman (Empire) noted similarities to Wes Anderson’s high school feature Rushmore, noting: “Too bitter to be a big success, this second feature from Payne is still an excellent movie, funny and painful, with a perfectly-turned punchline and a black humour.”
In a series of retrospective reviews to mark the film’s 20th anniversary (2019), many commented on how well the film has aged, with The Guardian and Vanity Fair channeling this through the continued relevance of Witherspoon’s obnoxious Tracy Flick. And, as ever with Alexander Payne’s films, the lead performances drive the story and make for constant compelling viewing. Witherspoon, in one of her earliest leading roles, is on scene-stealing form as the obnoxious Flick, making her initially appear to be an insufferable know-it-all trying to step on other people and eventually bringing her around to someone relateable and easy to empathise with – as is the case for so many of Payne’s characters, she is flawed but we come to accept her plight nonetheless. Matthew Broderick also brings incredible depth to his lead role of down on his luck teacher Jim McAllister, offering a tenderness and vulnerability as well as doses of humour as his life slowly unravels – in many ways he is not dissimilar to Paul Giamatti’s Miles from Sideways.
The film’s topic may not seem enticing on paper – a high school election campaign – but Payne uses this as an opportunity to poke holes at both the political and school systems in the US, to far better effect than say Netflix’s recent ‘The Politician’. Election highlights how forced high school competitions can be, with many proving disinterested in the presidential race, all the while poking holes in the types of people who stand for political office. There have even been many real world political comparisons to Tracy Flick in the guise of Elizabeth Warren among others. In perhaps the biggest compliment to this aspect of Payne’s film, former US President Barrack Obama has gone on record to declare Election as his favourite political movie.
A more rounded film than Citizen Ruth, the comedy and potency of Payne’s screenwriting can be seen more clearly here, featuring his noteworthy razor sharp wit and a whimsical sense of humour. One of the masterstrokes is having four narrators, showing each side of the debate’s stance on the election and its participants, whether that is Jim McAllister’s disdain for Tracy and desire for anyone else to win, Paul Metzler’s (Chris Klein’s) general disinterest in proceedings or Tracy’s self-centred drive to reach peak political office.
For these reasons, Election remains essential viewing for encapsulating all that makes Payne such a distinctive and innovative filmmaker even two-plus decades later, his use of humour and drama at the forefront of what makes this film tick. The cast is superb, especially Broderick and Witherspoon, and for all of the changes to our ways of life in recent decades, their characters and the film as a whole have aged remarkably well. This is an essential for fans of political and high school satire, as well as those who admire Payne’s more reputable later work, and should Citizen Ruth’s take on abortion prove difficult to stomach, Election may well be a fantastic starting point for those unsure as to where to dive into the director’s repertoire. Given the brilliance of Election in many areas, it is no surprise that Payne would come to straddle such critical and commercial heights, and it remains a shame that more audiences didn’t engage with Tracy Flick and Jim Mcalister in their own era.