John Denvir, who teaches constitutional law at USF Law School, is editor of Legal Reelism: Movies as Legal Texts, available at local bookstores or through amazon.com.
Four main characters carry the narrative load. Each is the object of Paynes satire; yet he never reduces them to cartoon characters; each is shown to have his or her own understandable motivations. Thats what makes the film so scary.
In fact, maybe thats what politics needs. Theres a need in any organization for Tracys energy, Pauls sweetness, and Tammys irony. The genius of leadership- Im talking giants like FDR and LBJ- is the ability to take individual neuroses and channel them into productive common action.
| Personal Politics
By John Denvir
Tip ONeill was famous for the aphorism "All politics is local." In his film "Election," Alexander Payne adds a new twist, "All politics is personal."
The plot surrounds an election for student body president at Carver High in Omaha, Nebraska. Four main characters carry the narrative load. Each is the object of Paynes satire; yet he never reduces them to cartoon characters; each is shown to have his or her own understandable motivations. Thats what makes the film so scary.
The main protagonist is Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), who is a "popular" history teacher, three-time winner of the "best teacher award." "Mr. M" (as he is called) is a "good citizen" type. He drives a beat-up Ford Fiesta to school where he explains the difference between "ethics and morality" to students who have arrived in Lexuses. He roots hard for the school football team and tries even harder to impregnate his mousy wife. McAllister is fond of telling us how lucky he is; thats always a bad sign.
His nemesis is Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), a tight little bundle of blonde energy who is determined to win the election for student body President, a post which she sees as a stepping stone to . . . well, Elizabeth Dole is one of her heroes. Tracy is from a one-parent family short on cash, but long on ambition. She represents what we might call the "good white trash" tendency in American politics. Richard Nixon was its perfect embodiment. There is no attempt at glamour or wit; Tracy expects to win because shes smarter and works harder than anyone else. No one had better get in her way; certainly not a wishy-washy liberal history teacher. Its a great virtue of the movie, and of Witherspoons performance, that Tracy is never demonized. She knows that somehow all her victories are not adding up to happiness. Its not easy to "like" Tracey, but her candor, intelligence, and grit command respect.
McAllister has a "thing" about Tracy. Maybe its because she had an affair with McAllisters former colleague and friend Dave Novotny, an affair which ended with Novotny losing his job and Tracy running for student body president. Maybe its because he fears he will suffer the same fate if shes elected and he continues as faculty advisor to the student government. In any case, he convinces Paul Metzgler (Chris Kein) to run against Tracy. Paul is both the quarterback of the football team and the son of a rich industrialist. He has all the easy going charm that comes in America with athletic ability backed by money. Paul is a pretty sweet guy, but dumb as a post. Paul likes everyone, even Tracy, and thats a fatal flaw in politics.
Pauls younger sister Tammy also enters the race. Tammy is "not a lesbian or anything," but admits that she only is sexually attracted to girls. Her motivation is revenge on an old girl friend who is now going steady with Paul. She provides the ironic view in the story. Her campaign is based on the premise that the election is meaningless anyhow, just a way for some wannabe workaholic to pad his or her resume. She has the "outsiders" talent for detecting hypocrisy and cant which seems to escape "insiders" like her brother and McAllister.
The election comes down to the wire. Mr. McAllister suspects but cannot prove that Tracy has engaged in some unethical campaign practices. To stop her, he engages in some unethical behavior of his own; in counting the ballots, he intentionally fails to count two votes cast for her, making Paul the winner. However, his ethical lapse is discovered, and he is fired. It turns out this is not his only ethical (or is it moral?) lapse; he has also had an abortive affair with friend, Novotnys ex-wife, which she reports to McAllisters wife.
At the end, the characters regroup. Tracy is victorious, but still vaguely unhappy. Paul is still rich, happy, sweet, and clueless. Tammy is sent to a Catholic girls school where she falls in love with another girl who may or may not be a lesbian. McAllister is fired, and divorced by the mousey wife.
"Election" is billed as a "dark comedy." Clearly, its not an "uplifting" experience as film reviewers use that term. Jim McAllister is not Rocky Balboa. Still, I dont see "Election" as being "down" about life. Its true that most of the characters seem destined to obsessively repeat the same neurotic patterns. Tracy will always be successful and vaguely lonely. Paul will always be rich, happy, and clueless, and Tammy will always split her time between exposing the hypocrisy of the world and finding one more true "soulmate."
But McAllister has broken the cycle of karma; hes escaped from a bad situation and hopefully has learned some lessons we could all benefit from. What are they? First, dont mistake proximity for intimacy. McAllister thinks because he spends a lot of time at Carver High that his colleagues and students love him. But they dont love him; they love "Mr. M." who plays a certain secondary role in their lives. As soon as he deviates from the institutional script, they quickly abandon him. The principal fires him; a former student spits on him. To them he was important as a persona, not as a person. But, then again, he did the same thing when his friend was fired. Out of sight, out of mind. You could say the same thing about his wife. She saw him as a partner in the pursuit of the middle class dream. She would give him warmed over dinners with polite conversation; he would give her a child. He violated the agreement and paid the price. He could use some of Tammys skepticism.
Secondly, innocence--or at least naivete-- is vice. McAllisters problem was that he took everything at face value. Not aware of his own non-altruistic motivations, hes easy prey to those, like Tracy, Tammy, and his putative lover Linda who realize that we all have ulterior motives. In fact, its not clear if his downfall was caused by an "ethical" lapse, or by his own incompetence in "stealing " the election. Maybe his real moral flaw was not "stuffing" the ballot box to stop Tracy, but bungling the job. "Dirty tricks" are a well-established tradition in American politics. After all, many believe that Kennedy beat Nixon in 1960 because the Democrats stole more votes in Chicago than the Republicans did in Southern Illinois. Tracy would have gotten the job done.
But McAllister gets a second chance. He moves to New York, gets a job as a teaching guide at the Natural History Museum, and meets an attractive non-mousey woman. Of course, hes not free of Tracy. Hell probably meet her in the guise of Director of the Museum just as he will meet Paul as a member of the Board of Directors, and Tammy as a colleague always exposing the hypocrisy of her superiors. These are personality types which are always with us. What can change is how McAllister deals with them. A little less smug in his own moral (or is it ethical?) virtue, he might be a little more savvy in dealing with world. In fact, maybe thats what politics needs. Theres a need in any organization for Tracys energy, Pauls sweetness, and Tammys irony. The genius of leadership- Im talking giants like FDR and LBJ- is the ability to take individual neuroses and channel them into productive common action.
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