Paramount // 1999 // 103 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // January 20th, 2009
Reading. Writing. Revenge.
"It's like my mom says. The weak are always trying to sabotage the strong."
Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick, The Producers) is a good man and a good teacher. He has a real passion for helping high schoolers, and has often found a great deal of personal satisfaction in his work. Jim feels like he is making a difference in the world, and he thinks that life in general is pretty good right now. He's in a reasonably happy marriage, he and his wife have just decided to try and have a child, and he's been named Teacher of the Year for the third time. One of Jim's responsibilities at the school is to oversee the election of school president. It's about that time of year again, and it seems like there is only one likely winner.
That would be Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line), who is surely the most ambitious and overachieving student in the entire high school. Tracy is the sort of person who follows her dreams to victory on a daily basis and has won more accolades and awards than any other student in school. Over the past few years, she has been piling a seemingly endless stream of positive items on her transcript, and being the high school president seems like the next logical step. However, Tracy has something of a dark side. She's willing to step on anyone to move ahead. She was even willing to sleep with Jim's foolish best friend and co-worker, which proved to be a career-killing situation for that particular fellow.
Jim doesn't particularly like Tracy -- partially because she ruined the life of his best friend, and partially because she is just so artificially cheerful and goal-driven. Either way, he just doesn't like her. He thinks she needs to have a bit of competition in the election, so Jim encourages the school's ultra-popular (and unfortunately injured) local quarterback (Chris Klein, American Dreamz) to run. That seems to be working out fine at first, until the quarterback's younger sister determines to launch her own anarchy-themed campaign. Who will win this brutal Election, and will Jim McAllister be able to survive the increasingly frustrating process?
Back in the days when people actually went to video rental stores, I used to hang out at a video rental store quite a bit. I would spend a couple of hours each week talking to the manager there, who had a genuine passion for cinema and always provided wonderful conversation. However, there was one opinion he held that puzzled me. One day I rented Election, and he simply rolled his eyes. "Don't like it?" I asked. "I can't stand it," he said. I asked why. "I...well, just watch it, and you'll understand," he replied. So, I took it home and watched it, and thought it was quite entertaining. I brought it back to the store a couple of days later, and asked him again why he didn't like the film. "It's just so incredibly annoying," he said. "It's a really harsh satire, but it's just so nice to everybody. It's like, just when it gets you to really hate someone, then it makes you understand them and root for them all of a sudden, and there's all that weird semi-hip music on the soundtrack, and...agh, I just can't take it."
While I disagree with that particular sentiment, the manager was onto something. Election walks a pretty thin tightrope that numerous films since have failed to match. Anybody remember Pretty Persuasion? No? Anyway, Alexander Payne's satirical look at a high school election is quite a compelling watch, and manages to provide a surprising emotional core that is often absent in satire. Election satirizes a series of recognizable personality types but takes time to remember that beneath such absurd personalities are real people with thoughts, feelings, and dreams.
All four of the primary characters are given an opportunity to narrate and share their point of view. We spend the most time with Jim McAllister, a nice man who never really comes to grips with the idea that his life isn't as good as he thinks it is. From a purely logical point of view, Broderick is the villain here. He's the one crossing all the serious ethical lines, and the ones whose actions are most deserving of considerable punishment. Even so, we feel sorry for him and understand him, because the film so successfully demonstrates why a man like Jim would not be able to survive for very long around a student like Tracy. The struggling "problem kids" aren't any trouble at all. Jim loves helping them succeed. It's that grating, overachieving honor student that really drives him bonkers.
Good as Broderick is here, the film is best-remembered for Reese Witherspoon's fierce portrayal of Tracy Flick. Even today, it remains one of the strongest performances of Witherspoon's career. To re-visit Election is to be reminded of why Reese Witherspoon shot to superstar status. Once upon a time, she was quite a daring young actress whose resumé included such risky films as Freeway, Cruel Intentions and American Psycho. I miss that Reese Witherspoon, and this is the high point of that part of her career. She creates a character both intensely frightening, infinitely amusing, and even a little sympathetic. Witherspoon receives very solid backing from Chris Klein as the sweet-but-dopey football player, and from Jessica Campbell as a disenfranchised closet lesbian.
Unfortunately, this Blu-ray release offers fans of the movie little reason to upgrade. The film doesn't really look that great. There's a surprisingly high level of scratches and flecks (Flicks?) for a film only a decade old, and the film generally lacks sharpness and depth. Facial and background detail is not particularly impressive, and the image also suffers from a pretty steady level of grain. Audio is perfectly adequate, though this film offers almost nothing that will give your speakers any sort of workout. The soundtrack makes the biggest impression, with an eclectic batch of song choices blending nicely with an agitated Rolfe Kent score. The only extra here is ported over from the DVD: a solid audio commentary with director Alexander Payne. It's worth a listen, as Payne is generally quite informative and manages to survive handling the entire track by himself.
I do question just a bit of the character motivation in the film. While most of it seems perfectly organic and natural, there are a couple of moments that seem just a bit too contrived. The way Jim's failed affair is handled particularly seems a little awkward, as it mostly seems to be nothing more than a convenient way to set up a few different situations.
Though Election is worth voting for, this unimpressive Blu-ray release is not. It's a perfectly acceptable way to experience the film for the first time, but not worth an upgrade for those who own the DVD.
The film is not guilty, the disc is guilty. Court is adjourned.
Review content copyright © 2009 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p Widescreen)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 103 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Rated R