Election Review

We've all met the likes of Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon). She's the star pupil at George Washington Carver High, Omaha – straight As in class, reporter for the school magazine and TV channel. She works very, very hard and now she's running for student president. And she's very likely to get the post, no matter who she has to step on to get her way. The only one who sees this is Civics teacher Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), who encourages popular but dim jock Paul Metzler (Chris Klein) to run against her. Paul's sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell) has just been dumped by Lisa (Frankie Ingrassia), who has become Paul's girlfriend and campaign manager. In revenge, Tammy runs for president as well. In his attempts to thwart destiny, Jim brings all manner of disaster down upon his head.

Along with Rushmore and 10 Things I Hate About You, Election showed that a film set in high school could be just as intelligent as one with more "adult" subject matter. Election is a razor-sharp satire that seems even more timely a year after its release with a real presidential election campaign. Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor's script (based on a novel by Tom Perotta) is tightly constructed, with small details subtly placed to pay off later, but its masterstroke is its use of voiceover. Too many recent films have used voiceover as a prop, spelling things out that would be better conveyed visually. Election has voiceovers from Tracy, Jim, Paul and Tammy, which gives the characters greater dimension, enables us to see them from their own point of view, and makes the film much more complex and ambiguous. Tracy might be a monster, but you can see why she's that way: class envy and a pushy mother have a lot to do with it. We even, at times, feel sorry for her. Reese Witherspoon deserved (but didn't get) an Oscar nomination for her performance, but Matthew Broderick is just as good as Jim McAllister. Broderick has played his share of student roles, but he excels as the teacher stuck in the Midwest, teaching the same things year in and year out. Chris Klein is also excellent as the good-natured but dim Paul, popular, good looking with well-off parents and the possessor of a (so he's told) large penis. It says something for the film's liberal outlook that the most sympathetic character is Tammy, a lesbian who campaigns on a platform of "Who cares who wins the stupid election?" Jessica Campbell is very good in the part, and the smaller roles are equally well cast. But Payne and Taylor do leave certain events open to interpretation: there's no explanation as to why Tammy takes the blame for tearing down election posters, although she knows Tracy did it (and that scene features the longest gap in Payne's commentary). Was Tammy attracted to Tracy, only to be rejected when she does her a favour? You decide.

Election was shot in Super 35, and this DVD is correctly transferred in a ratio of 2.35:1. The film was shot mostly on real locations (including real houses and schools) in and around Omaha, and James Glennon's photography is deliberately low-key and unflashy, though always clear and sharp. The DVD transfer brings this out very well, give or take the occasional minor artefact. There are two soundtracks, one in Dolby Digital 5.1 and the other in Dolby Surround. This isn't a film to give your speakers a workout: it's mostly dialogue-based with occasional directional sound effects. You should note that the disc defaults to the Dolby Surround track, so bear that in mind when playing it. There are eighteen chapter stops.

The only extra is Alexander Payne's commentary. Fortunately, it's a good one. Payne is an engaging speaker, sometimes quite modest. Any filmmakers listening will learn quite a bit about how camera placement and details of production design can subtly add to your awareness of the film and its characters. And that's all there is on a nearly bare-bones DVD: there's not even a trailer. Ultimately, though, it's the film which counts.

Election was Omaha-based director Alexander Payne's second film, following Citizen Ruth, a satire on the abortion debate starring Laura Dern. His film didn't do great business at the box office, though many people will be looking forward to what Payne does next. It's too early to say how much staying power Election will have, though it's a film which certainly sustains more than one viewing. It's one of the gems of the last few years.

Daniel Stephens's review of the Region 2 edition can be found here.

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