Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Countdown to Election '08 - Election

Taking a break from American politics today to talk about a politics of a much more vicious and painful nature...

High school politics.


Alexander Payne's brilliant and biting Election is the perfect portrait of a school election as microcosm of American politics. Reese Witherspoon plays Tracy Flick, the epitome of overachieving A-personality. Always the first to raise her hand in class. Like Hermione, only not, because Hermione actually has a soul and a heart. Tracy is not squeaky clean - she had an affair with a teacher, who lost his job while she got out of the situation without anyone knowing she was involved. The teacher's best friend, Mr. McAllister, is played by Matthew Broderick, and he has been placed in charge of the student elections. Aside from not wanting to work with Tracy, who is set to run for president unopposed, McAllister wants to teach Tracy a lesson. He sees her as someone who is so singleminded about succeeding and her own personal entitlement - even though student government is little more than dressage for her college application - that she hasn't allowed herself to be a young person, and really doesn't have a life or friends. McAllister convinces jock Paul Metzler (Chris Klein) to run against her, and Paul's sister - angry because her girlfriend left her for Paul - runs as a third candidate, to stick it to her brother.

There are so many familiar themes and moments. The candidates give their speeches to the school. Tracy's speech is formulaic and rather insincere. Paul, despite his popularity, is kind of a wonk, speech-wise. And his sister Tammy's speech is anarchy at it's finest ("Don't vote for me!"), and of course gets the most enthusiastic response from the student body. Tracy is the cutthroat, win-at-all-costs frontrunner; Paul is the sincere guy who would probably be the better leader, but lacks the ambition and contempt for his opponents that it seems is needed for a successful political career; and Tammy is in the game for revenge and to shake things up.

Perhaps nothing encapsulates the nature of the two students running (Tammy is eventually removed from the race by way of transfer to another school) than their respective prayers to God the night before the election:

Tracy Flick: Dear Lord Jesus, I do not often speak with you and ask for things, but now, I really must insist that you help me win the election tomorrow because I deserve it and Paul Metzler doesn't, as you well know. I realize that it was your divine hand that disqualified Tammy Metzler and now I'm asking that you go that one last mile and make sure to put me in office where I belong so that I may carry out your will on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.


Paul Metzler: Dear God, than you for all your blessings. You've given me so many things, like good health, nice parents, a nice truck, and what I'm told is a large penis, and I'm very grateful, but I sure am worried about Tammy. In my heart, I still can't believe she tore down my posters, but sometimes, she does get so weird and angry. Please help her be a happier person because she's so smart and sensitive and I love her so much. Also, I'm nervous about the election tomorrow and I guess I want to win and all, but I know that's totally up to you. You'll decide who the best person is and I'll accept it. And forgive me for my sins, whatever they may be. Amen.

Despite the fact that Tracy does, in fact, win - not just the election, but the perceived high ground against Mr. McAllister - the real winner of the movie is Mr. McAllister. Because, though he isn't what a lot of people would consider a success and compromises his own moral standards in his efforts to defeat Tracy, he's nonetheless an ultimately happier character than Tracy will ever be.

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