Election was released a few months before the debut of Aaron Sorkin’s TV series The West Wing and pretty much undercut everything he would say for the next four seasons. Sorkin wrote what he called “a love letter to public service,” based on noble white men who do their best for the public good, which is a hard thing to believe in after you’ve seen Alexander Payne’s film, where everyone who wants any kind of civic position has almost no awareness of the public, let alone any interest in serving it. Oh yeah, and this all takes place in a high school.
Reese Witherspoon creates an American icon with Tracy Flick, a student determined to climb to the top of whatever social structure she’s in (including a classroom) by any means necessary. She plays Flick as smart, insufferable, never able to shut herself off, and under all of it, desperate; late in the movie, there’s a scene with her mother (Colleen Camp) that’s just terrifying in how we see her real motivation. Matthew Broderick plays her teacher, and he goes all in on a pathetic character, someone who can believe in the right thing because he never actually tries to do it. Jessica Campbell, Chris Klein, Mark Harelik, and Jeanine Jackson join in as various other students, teachers, and neighbors, and they all interact with each other (usually badly) in a spiralling plot that anticipates the Coen Bros. Burn After Reading, another vicious political comedy with no mercy and somewhere between zero and one sympathetic characters. Novelist Tom Perrotta (The Leftovers) and Payne play this story all the way out to the end; our last moment with Tracy Flick makes Election the true origin story of Washington insiders, the kind of character that dominates our politics and that Sorkin literally cannot imagine.
Election streams free on Amazon Prime.