Nothing in the brief history of MTV Films could have prepared audiences, in 1999, for the R-rated anomaly that is writer-director Alexander Payne's Election. Though set primarily in George Washington Carver High School, the story doesn't deal with the usual peanuts of dumb high school comedies. Instead, Payne's follow-up to the equally devastating satire Citizen Ruth develops a funny and horrifying allegory of American politics and adult society, as seen through the prism—or shall we say "prison"?—that is secondary education.
Working from the novel by Tom Perrotta, Payne & regular co-writer Jim Taylor opens on a close-up of a phallic lawn sprinkler spurting across a high-school field. Patriarchal power turns out to be an illusion, especially for Mr. Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), Carver High's well-liked teacher of U.S. History, Civics, and Current Events (part of the joke in Payne and Taylor's satire is how far afield McAllister goes from his supposed areas of expertise). At the film's outset, McAllister is consciously content with his unmoving career, his boxy car (a mockingly named Ford Festiva), and his bland Midwestern suburbia, but beneath the placid surface lie resentments waiting to be dredged up by the unique brand of insufferable student represented by Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon).
Flick is a classic anal-retentive over-achiever who lives in fear of making that tiny mistake that might rob her of her American Dream: to win the Carver High student government presidency, get into a top college and score a high-powered job that will lift her and her hard-working single mom out of their socio-economic doldrums and into the highest echelon of the American elite (of Mom, Tracy notes, "She wants me to do all the things that she wanted to do in life but couldn't"). Tracy is a walking pressure cooker set on simmer, and there's no reasoning with her. She has one setting, and she's going to do what she's built to do unless somebody pulls the plug. "You can't interfere with destiny," Tracy says. "That's why it's destiny. And if you try to interfere, the same thing's going to happen anyway. And you'll just suffer."
It's a thought that doesn't occur to McAllister, who looks at Tracy and sees everything that's wrong with America. One girl's American Dream of hard work and achievement is another man's nightmare: an unchecked, unbalanced force that will have its way by any means necessary. Acting on a whim, McAllister invites sweet but dumb "rich kid" Paul Metzler (Chris Klein in his screen debut) to put his popularity to use by running for student body president. A jock derailed by injury, Chris isn't particularly interested in the job, but since he's directionless and susceptible to suggestion, he goes along for the ride. Matters become further complicated by Paul's unintentional slight to his sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell), a lesbian who has't admitted her sexual orientation to herself: "It's not like I'm a lesbian or anything. I'm attracted to the person. It's just that all the people I've ever been attracted to have been girls."
In fact, Election is a portrait hall of deluded characters who all think they're better than they are, resulting in a uniquely American brand of hypocrisy. Payne's keen observation may come across as snarky and wicked, but he's also undeniably incisive and not entirely lacking in compassion for his misguided protagonists. In a reflection of a plot ostensibly concerned with American democracy, the script is also conspicuously democratic, allowing Mr. McAllister, Tracy, Paul and Tammy to take turns offering first-person voice-over narration (here and elsewhere, the film effectively captures archetypal voices of students, teachers, and administrators). Ironically, Tammy tells the truth and destroys democracy in one bold stroke: "We all know it doesn't matter who gets elected President of Carver. Do you really think it's going to change anything around here?" The thought that Tammy's comment might be equally accurate about our self-serving national political scene is a chilling one.
Class resentment rears its ugly head, as do the piteousness of impotent authority, cheating in its various forms, and the self-satisfied belief in divine right. With the exception of the blithe Paul (who reads The Celestine Prophecy in search of life's answers), all of the characters are guilty of moral or ethical compromise and, in the case of McAllister and Tracy, both. One of the film's most deadly jokes emerges in a scene that establishes Tracy as the overachieving control freak always with her hand up. She's eager to answer the question "What's the difference between morals and ethics, anyway?", a question that's pointedly never answered in the film's untethered moral universe.
Election's Blu-ray debut—hooray for Paramount!—may not have the most impressive next-gen transfer, but it's still a worthwhile improvement over DVD. There's some noticeable dirt, a hint of vertical jitter to the image, and a general softness compared to the best of Blu-ray transfers, but it still beats the old DVD handily with improved detail, strong black level and colors that hold fast. I suspect that nothing short of a costly digital scrubbing would make the film look better, and arguably that would do a disservice to a relatively low budget film that has always looked a bit grotty. On Blu-ray, Election looks like a film, not a digital video, and that's as it should be. The Dolby TrueHD 5.0 is ordinary but certainly adequate for the film's humble demands.
The Blu-ray comes with only one bonus feature, but it's the most important one imaginable: a commentary with co-writer/director Alexander Payne. Payne explains how he came to the project, his symbolic approach to the material (watch for circles, apples, and trash), shooting on location at an Omaha school, the cast and production design. He also describes cut footage (unfortunately not included on the disc) like a scene in Dave's bedroom with Dave and Tracy.
It's nice to see Paramount digging into the catalog for titles like Election; it's a film ripe for (re)discovery.
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