The other day, I finally got around to seeing the 1999 movie, Election, directed by Alexander Payne (who also directed Sideways, which, for the record, contained the best rendition of drunk-dialing that the world has ever seen). Even though Election came out something like six years ago, I feel compelled to talk about it. Partly because it was an excellent satire of the American political system. Partly because I don’t have anything else to talk about. (Anyone else find it ironic, by the way, that George “Enemy Combatant” Bush urged “due process” for Scooter Libby? I can’t really write a whole column about that. But I thought it was interesting.)
Anyway, Election takes place in a high school in Omaha, Nebraska. As it begins, we meet a girl by the name of Tracy (played by Reese Witherspoon), who’s running for president of the Student Government. We also meet Jim (a.k.a., “Mr. M” (a.k.a., Matthew Broderick (a.k.a., Ferris Bueller all grown up))), who’s one of those rare few teachers who actually “cares” about his students, who’s so rare that he manages to pop up in every movie that’s ever been made about students and teachers. Tracy is the kind of extracurricularly obsessed girl often found in predominantly white American high schools. Her fingerprints are all over everything from the yearbook committee to the student television station. In short, she’s a perfect fit for a job as tough and demanding as SGA president. We soon learn that Jim has designs on stopping her.
This is when we meet Paul. Paul is a popular high school football player (played by perennial high school football player Chris Klein). Paul is out of commission at the moment due to a broken leg. He’s dumb as the DVD case Election came in, but he’s also the only honest and kind-hearted person in the movie. With this in mind, in the name of democracy, Jim convinces him to run against Tracy, who, up until now, has been running unopposed.
Around the same time Paul announces his candidacy, we also meet his younger and less popular lesbian sister, Tammy (Jessica Campbell), who’s trying to maintain a fling with her not-gay friend Lisa. Lisa decides to drive the final nail in the coffin of their relationship by starting up with Tammy’s brother. And Tammy, in turn, decides to get back at Paul by challenging him for the presidency—thus making it an incestuous three-way affair.
This is where the movie has its epiphany. It’s also where I begin to roll out the spoilers. So if you have any interest in seeing Election—which you should—then stop reading, because, as always, I have every intention of ruining it for you.
During an assembly in the high school gymnasium, all three candidates must come to the floor and deliver their campaign speeches. Tracy is first. She delivers the most cockamamie, condescending, Al Gore-style lines you could possibly ask for. To put it simply, she does Al Gore better than Al Gore does Al Gore. (Or to put it in more modern parlance: She does Al Gore better than John Kerry did Al Gore.) “During this campaign I have had the opportunity to speak with many of you about your concerns,” she says. “I spoke with freshman Eliza Ramirez, who told me how alienated she feels from her own homeroom. I spoke with sophomore Reggie Banks, who said his mother works in the cafeteria and can’t afford to buy him enough spiral notebooks for his classes.” Kill me. Now. And hide the body. I’m begging you.
Then Paul comes up to the mic to deliver his speech, and it’s dreadful. He looks down at the microphone and reads in a rambling, monotonous voice, promising students he won’t let them down as president—just as he didn’t let them down on the football field. While somewhat charming, Paul comes off as completely incompetent. What’s eerie about this is, Election came out in 1999—a year before the Bush-Gore election. And if Tracy is the annoying, overly polished, and disturbingly driven Al Gore of this movie, then Paul is without question its plucked-out-of-nowhere George Bush character (not that a state the size of Texas is nowhere, but you know what I mean).
Finally, Tammy comes up to the microphone and delivers hands-down the best line of the entire movie—the line that makes the entire thing worth watching (even though the entire thing is worth watching anyway). People know Tammy’s candidacy is essentially a joke. She’s no one. A nobody. They don’t even give her the respect of shutting their mouths and letting her talk. That’s when she lays it on them:
“Who cares about this stupid election?” she says. This shuts them up. “We all know it doesn’t matter who gets elected president of Carver [High School]. Do you really think it’s going to change anything around here; make one single person smarter or happier or nicer? The only person it does matter to is the one who gets elected. The same pathetic charade happens every year, and everyone makes the same pathetic promises just so they can put it on their transcripts to get into college. So vote for me, because I don’t even want to go to college, and I don’t care, and as president I won’t do anything. The only promise I will make is that, if elected, I will immediately dismantle the student government, so that none of us will ever have to sit through one of these stupid assemblies again!”
The entire gymnasium jumps to its feet. Students are going wild. Over their raucous applause and the evil stares of teachers, Tammy concludes: “Or don’t vote for me. Who cares? Don’t vote at all!”
Fittingly, it’s all downhill for Tammy from there. (Come on. When was the last time you saw a libertarian actually win something? For a bunch of committed free marketeers, libertarians are remarkably incapable of selling their souls.) She gets herself disqualified from the election and suddenly it’s back down to Tracy vs. Paul.
Who wins from there doesn’t really matter. I won’t bother to spoil the rest of it for you. I will point out, though, that Tammy ends up receiving more votes than either candidate—sort of like the “silent majority” of non-voters in this country, which groups like Vote or Die try so hard to convert. The only other thing I’ll tell you about the ending is that the epilogue features a scene at the Museum of Natural History in front of the Missing Link exhibit, which depicts a couple of hairy half-human/half-monkey people standing straight up with their private parts hanging out. It’s not really integral to the story, but I wrote about it in my first draft and decided to print it ‘cause I liked how the sentence sounded.
Election works on many levels, but, for me, the best thing it does is put elections in their place. Many books and films have raised significant questions about the political process—but that’s the easy part. Most Americans have significant questions about the political process anyway. Election takes it a step further and asks how much of that process ought to be taken seriously. And the answer is: Not much of it.
Granted, running a country and running a high school are different. High schools don’t need student governments; student governments don’t really govern anything. Countries aren’t nearly the same. Anarchy could work in theory. But, in theory, so could government. Any number of things can happen when you pull the rug right out from underneath a big sprawling bureaucracy. It’s hard to tell ahead of time. After all, bureaucracies tend to control everything from food and water to electricity and road repairs. (Of course, I call them bureaucracies, but fans of the ‘30s would know them by their politically incorrect title: mobs.) But Election never asks us to outright dismantle the government. It just asks us to keep in mind that the government is little more than a really big carnival. That’s what I like about it. Because, really, that’s all you can ask.
“We all know it doesn’t matter who gets elected president,” Tammy says. She’s right about that. It really doesn’t matter—whether here in America, or in Election‘s Carver High School. Every American president is going to do the same basic set of things. He’s going to preside over a bumbling bureaucracy. He’s going to grow the government. He’s going to rob Peter to pay Paul, or rob Paul to pay back Peter (whatever it takes to reverse the last president). He’ll show “strength” against something or another. He’ll show “compassion” for something else. He’ll “stand with” your congressman twice every four years. And he’ll restore “integrity” to Washington, as if there was ever any integrity there to begin with. (Read the story of how friends convinced Washington himself to run for president. You make the call.)
The point is, maybe we do need a government, maybe we don’t, but all this pomp and circumstance they subject us to is just that: pomp and circumstance. No one’s going to “fight for you,” as candidates like to say. It really doesn’t matter who you vote for. Honestly. Vote for Donald Duck. Or Daffy. Or Peter, Paul, or Mary. Or Crosby, Stills, or Nash. Or Young. Vote for me. Vote for you. Vote for Jesus. Leave your ballot blank. It doesn’t make a lick of difference. Unless they’re running a total whack job like Mike Tyson or Genghis Khan for president, you’re basically just choosing between two equally fallible people: the overachiever who raised their hand all the time and annoyed you in high school (Al Gore, who got C’s at Harvard), or the simple but likable guy who believed in leadership, sacrifice, and other sports principles (George Bush, who got C’s at Yale).
Presidents were never supposed to be national father figures. They were supposed to be receptionists—men who filed paperwork and signed bills into law. For most Americans, that’s all they are anyway. But with presidents now raiding homes for Cuban toddlers and personally choosing who should and shouldn’t be entitled to due process, it’s nice to have a movie like Election, which shows commanders-in-chief for the joke they mostly are.
Copyright © 2005 Jonathan David Morris