Election: Ambition, it’s a blessing . . . and a curse

Warning: Spoilers!!!!!!!!!!

Warning: Spoilers!!!!!!!!!

Warning: Spoilers!!!!!!!!

Tracy Flick is one of those characters whose notoriety exceeds the boundaries of the story they are a part of. There are so many characters who fit this description, including The Artful Dodger, Scarlett O’Hara, Big Bird, Archie Bunker, The Fonze, and The Dude. These are figures who seem to break free of their narrative landscapes.

We remember them, even as we forget other characters, plot lines, or even themes. They are characters that have a gravitational weight in the story, with other characters and themes acting in relation to them. Actors and actresses want to play them, fans quote them, and even people who have never seen the play or movie, or read the novel or short story, have heard of these characters.

Election and Satire

And that gets us to Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), the determined, unscrupulous, practically unstoppable candidate for High School President of Carver High. In her quest to become someone great, she is simultaneously admirable, unscrupulous, ridiculous, and indefatigable. She is the iconic character we find in Election (1999). The film is best thought of as a Horatian satire, but at times, it’s just biting enough that one might think of it as more Juvenalian.

In terms of Horatian satire, there is the parody of two major parties, each running for office, with a third party spoiler candidate. There’s the light-touch intertextual joke that Matthew Broderick, who once played the trouble-making Ferris Bueller, is now playing a frustrated high school teacher, Mr. McAllister. How the wheel turns! And then there’s the incessant unseemly ambition of Tracy Flick, who tells us that she volunteers for every committee, so long as she gets to be in charge.

Election is a delightful and biting satire.

But the film gets into Juvenalian satire as well, most especially as we see the characters turn on each other. There’s the fight between Lisa (Frankie Ingrassia) and Tammy (Jessica Campbell), that leads to Tammy dating Lisa’s brother Paul, and Tammy running a third-party spoiler candidacy. There’s the entitled elitism of Paul (Chris Klein), who’s handed his candidacy; there’s the amoral boundless ambition of Tracy, and the oddly prophetic Tammy, who in her spiteful cynicism, speaks truth that everyone knows, but no one else dare speak aloud. And then there’s the power-behind-the power, the principal (Phil Reeves), who is cynical in a different way, a way that says, “Whatever–are we really taking this race seriously?”

High School and National Politics

The satirical blade is double-edged, as it doesn’t just editorialize about politics in general; the film is also a commentary on high school politics, the politics of adolescence, and of the staff lounge. The satire here is also both of the Horatian and Juvenalian varieties, and it’s tough at times to find the dividing line between the two. There’s the entitled quarterback, whose wealthy family puts him in an upper echelon of teenage high society; there’s the teacher who only got into education for the summers off, the deep resentments between staff, faculty, administrators, and students. And there’s even a moral tale about not getting on the wrong side of the custodians. And then on top of all this, there’s hormones, sex, intrigue, and betrayal, all of which is at times ridiculous and dramatic.

One of my favorite scenes in Election, and a great example of Witherspoon’s steller acting, and the quality use of narration in this film.

Part of the insight of the film is the subtle juxtaposition of governmental politics and social politics together. By governmental politics, I mean running for office, having a campaign, passing laws, etc. By social politics, I’m referring to people engaging in tribalism, clique cultivation, and keeping-up-with-the-Joneses. One of the film’s unmistakable suggestions is that those two types of politics are interwoven. Elections are popularity contests, and popularity contests are more than just about who adores you. It’s about material gain, access to power, privilege, and opportunities.

It’s also connected, as the film suggests, to sex, attraction, and romance. In one of those aphorisms whose author is nearly impossible to pin down, someone (or maybe several someones), once observed that “power is the greatest aphrodisiac.” And the connection between sex and politics, both governmental and social, is nearly ubiquitous in this film.

There is sexual tension between McAllister and Flick, and more direct sexual behavior between numerous other characters. Love, sex, and envy impact all three Presidential races, and the lives of the characters outside of the race. I don’t think this motif of sex and ambition has any clear moral message in the film, other than to show the inescapable connection between the two. Or perhaps, another way to put it is that the lack of any moral is the moral. Election is simply showing us the tawdry reality of politics, in both senses of the word.

Hilarious scene between Tracy and Mr. McAllister

And then finally, there’s the suggestion that no one really outgrows high school. The teachers at Carver High don’t, but even at the end of the film, McAllister, in a different city, with a different job, still can’t seem to shake his past with Tracy, or with all the Tracys of the world. And Tracy is still her ambitious, scheming, unstoppable self. Ambition, high school, popularity contests, sex, and betrayal–according to Election, they are bound up together and always with us.

Tracy Flick

As for Tracy Flick, it’s worth considering why she’s such an iconic character. Tracy embodies many of the characteristics Americans regard as either enviable or, at least, especially representative of U.S. culture. She’s hard working, industrious, driven, smart, and extremely competitive.

Of course, each of these characteristics is something that Mr. McAllister finds alarming. Tracy’s competitive to the point of wanting to be in charge of every committee. She’s industrious and hard working, but her focus borders on obsession. She’s focused on her dreams, but her resentment at Paul and his advantages shrouds her own unseemly sense of destiny and entitlement; Tracy and her mother speak as if the Presidency belongs to her for the taking. And her take-no-prisoners attitude, while admirable, allows her to justify her ruthless actions throughout the film.

Tammy, the truth-teller

To put this another way, her personality puts her squarely between different iconic American fictional characters. She’s clever, like Huck Finn; but another side of that intelligence is that she is slightly reminiscent of the monstrous Mrs. Eleanor Shaw Iselin in The Manchurian Candidate (1962). Just as Oedipus represents the ideals of Athenian society, Tracy represents the embodiment of American ideals. And just as Oedipus adopts his society’s ideals of pride, curiosity, and strength to such excess that they destroy him and everyone around him, so Tracy’s ambition–her distinctive American-ness–radiates with such illumination that it becomes radioactive, both for her and those around her.

In this sense, Tracy embodies the paradox that a society’s most valued qualities are also, in their excess, liabilities. As Adrian Monk would say, “It’s a blessing–and a curse.” Tracy doesn’t tragically fall, unlike Oedipus, but there is a sense in which Mr. McAllister grows more than Tracy, and that growth results from his fall. At the end of the film, Tracy achieves what she wants, but what does she learn? Mr. McAllister loses almost everything, but in a way gains from his loss. Of course, the ending is narrated from Mr. McAllister’s point-of-view, so it’s unsurprising that it portrays him as the more maturing party.

Other notes:

  • Reese Witherspoon’s performance is a cut above in this film. The acting in this film is excellent, but her performance is superb.
  • There are multiple montages in this film, which are really well done. This is especially true, early in the film, when we’re getting the backstory to each character.
  • That multiple characters in the story–at least four, by my count–are narrators adds a really interesting level of complexity. It’s mostly told from Mr. McAllister’s perspective, but not exclusively, which adds all kinds of opportunities for discussion.
  • For some reason, the Principal is inordinately funny to me. He’s just so cynical and so beyond it all, so much so, that he can’t really be bothered to even be that cynical.
  • The freeze-frames are an old-fashioned but fun editing technique as well.

I’d recommend Election. It’s a clever, funny, cynical but also insightful and delightful satire on high school, politics, and life.

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