There are plenty of movies about politics out there, but my favorite among them has to be Election, a 1999 dark comedy about a high school race for student body president that quickly descends into a battle of wills between an obnoxious over-achiever and a teacher being eaten alive by his mid-life crisis. I’ve read that this movie is one of Barack Obama’s favorite political movies, and it’s easy to see why. Beneath what was almost criminally mis-marketed as a lighthearted teen comedy is a wicked satire of the lengths some people will go to obtain power and the lengths others will go to maintain the status quo.
The story takes place in Omaha, Nebraska, where high school teacher of the year Jim McAllister runs his class on U.S. history, politics and civics. Jim secretly nurses a grudge against star pupil Tracy Flick for having an ill-fated affair with Jim’s best friend (and fellow teacher) Dave. Dave rightly lost his job over it and was lucky to not go to jail, but Tracy’s lack of acknowledgement of the incident and continued to rung-climbing at school, gets under Jim’s skin. So, as she prepares to run unopposed for student body president, Jim decides that it’s time to take Tracy down a peg. He convinces Paul Metzler, a lovable doofus sidelined from the football team due to a skiing injury, to run against Tracy. Paul is rich, popular, and totally unqualified. Meanwhile, Paul’s lesbian sister Tammy is dumped by her girlfriend Lisa, who promptly starts banging Paul and actings as his campaign manager. To avenge her own wounded ego, Tammy decides to run as well on the platform that student elections are a farce and if elected, she’ll disband the student government. This puts her on the school administration’s hit list, and in short order we have Jim, Tracy, Paul and Tammy all circling each other as they try to gain an upper hand. But a mystery over some torn-up campaign posters, and more than a few moral indiscretions by Tammy and Jim soon turn a mundane school election into the kind of WTF moment that goes out on nationwide news wires as an oddball item to get people talking over dinner.
McAllister’s life is totally ruined by the end of this thing, and honestly, the guy has it coming. Tracy gets what she wants most, but learns that for all of her extremely hard work and ambition, the success she is chasing will never give her the happiness she craves. As for Paul, we might want to hate him for having life handed to him in a silver platter, except he’s the only genuinely nice guy in the entire movie. He wouldn’t hurt a fly, and you figure it’s okay he lives a life of undeserved comfort because you know he’s too thick to hurt anybody with it. And Tammy, well, she gets sent to the one place that both she and her parents think she belongs, but for very different reasons. Tammy’s still got a head full of unrealistic romantic expectations, but what the heck. She’s still in high school, after all.
What makes Election work so brilliantly as a dark comedy is that it never really delights in inflicting pain on its various characters. For the most part, there are no real villains here—everybody is sympathetic to some degree. Tracy is set up as somebody we’re supposed to resent, but the truth is the kid’s only crime is being way more ambitious than everybody else around her. She’s got a mean streak, sure, but it takes a guy like Jim McAllister to cross more than a few lines with her for us to see it. McAllister commits the story’s worst transgressions thanks to his unique mixture of repression, vindictiveness and hypocrisy, but after he pays for his crimes (and then some), even he still kind of ends up in a better place for it. As far as dark comedies go, this one really gives you permission to laugh out loud without having to feel guilty over it. And that is a rare thing, indeed.
And yet, this movie isn’t too much of a softball. Much of the humor is pretty twisted, and it paints about as bleak a picture of high school life as you’re likely to find on screen. There is a genuine cynicism but even the most optimistic viewer has to admit they understand where the movie’s coming from. While we see everybody more or less get their just desserts, the moment of truth is the movie’s final scene, which I won’t spoil for you here, but it involves an act of revenge so petty that you can’t help but laugh at it. In the DVD commentary, director Alexander Payne notes that he always thought there needed to be more movies that end with somebody running away from the camera while somebody else shouts at him, “You asshole!” I never realized there was such a need until I saw Election, and now, every time I watch any other movie, I realize how right Payne is.
Civics classes might want to show us Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to teach us about how power works in this country, but if you want the real deal, go watch Election. It won’t make you feel any better about democracy—in fact, it probably will bring to mind that old adage about watching sausage being made—but at least you can appreciate that somebody finally had the guts to shoot straight about it for once while delivering a lot of laughs along the way. Election might be a little hard to find (though it is streaming on Amazon Prime), but it’s worth the search. Just make sure to keep your hands off those votes, no matter how much you don’t like who the winner ought to be.