Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon in Election

How Can ‘Election’ Be 25 Years Old When I Haven’t Aged a Day?

Long before the contentious presidential elections of 2016 and 2020, a little movie starring Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon proved that corruption can (and will!) occur in any election, at any level, anywhere. Election premiered on April 23, 1999, so it’s now officially 25 years old.

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I still recall watching this film for the first time. It’s surreal to realize how much time has passed, yet Election is still so darkly funny and culturally relevant I rewatch it anytime I see it on TV. In many ways, 1999 was the calm before the storm. Friends was still on the air, Y2K was in the news, 9/11 was years away, and (blissfully) “Donald Trump” and “president” were seldom mentioned in the same sentence. It was a better time.

Election is a dark comedy based on the novel by Tom Perrotta. It was the first of Perrotta’s books to be adapted for the screen, followed by the 2006 film Little Children and the 2014 HBO series, The Leftovers. Perrotta is a master of humorous cynicism, providing biting commentary on American culture, societal norms, politics, and the poor choices average humans routinely make in our daily lives. With Election, the humor lies in the divisive characters and the absurd predicaments they get themselves into.

A departure for Broderick and Witherspoon

In Election, both leading actors play vastly different roles than the sort they’d previously played. Broderick was best known for playing the impish Ferris Bueller in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), or the earnest Eugene Morris Jerome in Biloxi Blues (1988). Seeing him return to a high school setting as Jim McAllister, a desperate, schlubby civics teacher who teaches morals and ethics (despite ultimately being bereft of both) is jarring, but in a good way. It’s a reminder that time is vicious, and it spares no one. Even a spunky go-getter like Ferris Bueller could end up living “a life of quiet desperation,” as Thoreau said.

Reese Witherspoon raises her hand in class in Election
(Paramount Pictures)

Speaking of spunky go-getters …. Tracy Flick is a very different character for Witherspoon as well. Before Election, Witherspoon was best known for her “good girl in a bad world” character Annette Hargrove in 1998’s Cruel Intentions. She played bad girl-turned-good that same year in Pleasantville, so watching her transform into a grade-grubbing, overachieving type-A personality who will stop at nothing to succeed was a brand new experience for audiences and a welcome surprise. Playing Tracy Flick changed the public’s perception of the actress; it also earned her the first major award nominations and critical acclaim of her career.

Some things never change

The impetus for the action in Election is the firing of Jim McAllister’s friend, a fellow teacher named Dave Novotny (Mark Harelik), for having an inappropriate relationship with Tracy, his student. This scenario is nothing new, but Election makes the situation personal by highlighting the consequences of Dave’s actions: He lost his wife, kids, job, and friends. Jim makes it all worse by sympathizing not with Dave’s victim, who is a child. Instead, he blames the victim and embarks on his own affair with Dave’s wife Linda (Delaney Driscoll), which begins a chain of events that will effectively end his own life, too. And he deserves it!

Politics haven’t changed either

The heart of the movie is a class presidential election between Tracy, school jock Paul (Chris Klein), whom Jim persuades to run against her, and Paul’s sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell), who just loves chaos and wants to get back at her brother for inadvertently stealing her girlfriend. It’s easy to draw comparisons between this high school election and recent elections for our nation’s highest offices. How many times have voters been presented with a choice between a qualified, driven woman with plans and ideas who is maybe just a little corrupt … and a useful dolt who is running solely for power and profit? Adding Tammy as the third-party candidate who won’t win but might steal just enough votes to tip the odds one way or another is sheer genius.

In the end, it’s Jim’s own carelessness and the honesty of one student vote counter that sinks the teacher’s career for good. A student named Larry (Nicholas D’Agosto) stops the election fraud and alerts officials, making us wonder if he went on to become an election official in a U.S. state somewhere … maybe Georgia?

The conclusion

The one area where writer/director Alexander Payne and screenwriter Jim Taylor veered away from Perrotta’s source material is the ending. In the book, Tracy and Jim meet up later in life and make peace, but audiences hated that ending, so they changed it. Now, Jim and Tracy each get a fresh start, but when Jim spots her getting into a car in Washington D.C., looking just as smug and officious as always, he can’t resist throwing his milkshake at the car. When the brake lights come on he hightails it out of there, because cowardice is the root of his evil, and it always has been.

This ending is better, and there’s a reason why audiences preferred it to the original: everybody loves a good grudge. We don’t want to see Jim and Tracy patch things up; their mutual hatred for one another warms the evil cockles of our hearts. We hate Jim and Tracy too, and that’s okay! These are intentionally hateful characters, and watching them makes us all feel just a little bit better about our own lives and decisions.

At its core, Election is about power, and in fact, aren’t all elections about power? Perhaps that’s why this movie still stands up to the test of time. The players may change, but the game will always remain the same.

(featured image: Paramount Pictures)


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Author
Beverly Jenkins
Beverly Jenkins (she/her) is a contributing writer for The Mary Sue. She writes about pop culture, entertainment, and web memes, and has published a book or a funny day-to-day desk calendar about web humor every year for a decade. When not writing, she's listening to audiobooks or watching streaming movies under a pile of her very loved (spoiled) pets.