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Alexander Payne's Election (1999), a wicked satire of power and social politics, is the confident second feature from the director and his screenwriting partner, Jim Taylor. Coming off of the critical success of Citizen Ruth (1996), a savage and darkly satirical take on the politics surrounding the abortion debate, Payne found the story for his next film in the novel by Tom Perrotta; it satirized the election process through the overheated incubator of a high school campaign for student body president, where favoritism, manipulation and apathy trump democracy at every turn.
For the role of the passionately dedicated and somewhat patronizing civics teacher Jim McAllister, Payne cast Matthew Broderick. It was Broderick's earnestness and his straight-arrow quality that Payne found perfect for the part. While he had not actually seen Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986) before making the film, Payne was well aware that his casting would reverberate off that beloved character, especially when it came to McAllister's idealism overcome by his frustrations and shortcomings.
For Tracy Flick, the high school overachiever who sees winning as merely an act of will, he chose rising young actress Reese Witherspoon, who had shown great range and ambition in such films as The Man in the Moon (1991), Freeway (1996) and Pleasantville (1998). Though over twenty at the time, she is completely convincing as both a chirpy, eager-to-please high school senior and as a fearsome, at times emotionally volcanic competitor. Her mix of innocence and drive makes the sexual component of the story (dialed back from the novel, according to Payne, but still a significant element of the plot) all the more startling.
These two actors are the only "names" in the cast. While Payne was able to secure a bigger budget than his first feature, Election was still, by Hollywood standards, a small production. "In a way, Citizen Ruth was a dry run for Election," Payne explained in his 1999 commentary for the DVD release of the film. He reunited the key members of his crew and shot the film in and around his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, using actual high schools and, for the most part, actual Omaha high school students in small roles. "I always tried to use real teachers in scenes that call for teachers and real students in scenes that call for students," explains Payne. "And I very much like mixing professional with non-professional actors. Often non-professional actors can make famous actors look more real and the presence of those professional actors can make those non-professionals look like they are acting better than they really are."
Payne's most significant local discovery was Chris Klein, a theater kid he met while scouting locations at an Omaha high school. It was Klein's first film -- his first professional acting job of any kind, in fact -- and the young actor gave arguably the most effective performance of his career as the sweet, generous, largely oblivious star athlete that Mr. McAllister talks into running against Tracy in the student body election. McAllister's manipulations don't end there, of course, which sets up the battle of wills between the not-so-benevolent teacher and the ruthlessly ambitious super-student who sees a student government office as her due.
Payne and Taylor are equal opportunity satirists and their sly wit dismantles everything from high school culture to suburban complacency. There's a savage wit to the bad behavior motivated by unchecked ambition, emotional need and simple human nature, and each of the characters is given room to justify their actions in self-serving monologues that reveal far more about the individual characters than the events they report. Even at their most extreme, these specimens of human frailty are awfully human and for all the satirical edges, Payne shows an affection for and understanding of all of his major characters.
With its lacerating satire, adult subject matter and smart writing and direction, Election became one of the best reviewed films of 1999 and a minor independent success story. It earned Payne and Taylor an Academy Award nomination (for Best Adapted Screenplay) and won three Independent Spirit Awards (including Best Feature and Best Director) and numerous awards from critics groups around the country. It also marked the arrival of Payne as a filmmaker who could maintain an independent, unconventional vision with complex characters and sophisticated wit within the Hollywood system.
Producer: Albert Berger, David Gale, Keith Samples, Ron Yerxa
Director: Alexander Payne
Screenplay: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor (screenplay); Tom Perrotta (novel)
Cinematography: James Glennon
Art Direction: Tim Kirkpatrick
Music: Rolfe Kent
Film Editing: Kevin Tent
Cast: Matthew Broderick (Jim McAllister), Reese Witherspoon (Tracy Flick), Chris Klein (Paul Metzler), Jessica Campbell (Tammy Metzler), Phil Reeves (Walt Hendricks), Molly Hagan (Diane McAllister), Delaney Driscoll (Linda Novotny), Mark Harelik (Dave Novotny), Colleen Camp (Judith R. Flick), Frankie Ingrassia (Lisa Flanagan)
by Sean Axmaker