Happy anniversary to ‘Election,’ the sneaky best movie of 1999

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Pretty early into Election we learn some disturbing news: Dave Novotny (Mark Harelik), a teacher at Carver High School and best friend to our protagonist Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), is having an affair with one of his students, an ambitious, lonely junior named Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon). When Dave spills the beans to Jim about the fling, Jim tells him plainly that he thinks it’s wrong.

“Jim, come on, I don’t need a lecture on ethics,” Dave responds. Jim, unrelenting, replies, “I’m not talking about ethics, I’m talking about morals.”

Dave scrunches up his face, confused. “What’s the difference?”

This is a repeated verbal gag in Election. When Jim poses the question about the difference between ethics and morals to his class, Tracy answers and defines ethics, but is then cut off by the film’s narration. The joke is also referenced in the film’s final line. These sorts of interwoven rhetorical callbacks appear throughout the film: a conversation about the greatness of Coca-Cola leads to Jim throwing out a Pepsi can, for example, and apples repeatedly pop up as characters make crucial decisions. Each callback relates to the how these characters come to make the decisions that shape their lives, and it’s part of what makes Election one of the best written comedies of the 20 years since its release. But the ethics/morals joke in particular speaks to the heart of the film’s intentions. What’s the difference between ethics and morals? Does it matter?

At the film’s beginning, though, both ethics and morals certainly matter to Jim. He’s the type of teacher from your high school that cared about the identity of the school to an extent that feels embarrassing in the moment and admirable upon retrospection. Broderick navigates this balance expertly. The role of Jim McAllister could have been a hollow, thankless one, but Broderick imbues him with enough inner turmoil to keep things interesting. Jim is an upstanding man: he’s in a comfortable, if boring, marriage, and he takes pleasure in his job. “Things were going pretty well in my life,” he tells us. But there is something suppressed underneath this veneer.

That is, suppressed until the election for high school class president. Tracy is running unopposed, and she wants to win more than anything. Jim cannot stomach the prospect, partially out of personal animus toward her relationship with Dave and partially out of a general unease with Tracy’s overwhelming self-interest.

Tracy Flick, like Jim McAllister, had the potential to be a flat, one-note joke of a character, but director Alexander Payne has a knack for creating fully formed humans on screen. On the surface she’s a character we’ve seen before, stereotyped in film and in our real-life politics: the “shrill,” “ambitious,” “calculated” female politician. (The thinkpieces comparing Flick to Hillary Clinton are abound.) But Witherspoon plays her sympathetically; she’s driven but vulnerable, ambitious but mostly harmless. Payne never allows Tracy Flick to become the villain in Election. The evil lies somewhere in the relationships between the characters.

Nonetheless, Jim convinces Paul Metzler (Chris Klein), the agreeable, air-headed quarterback, to run against her. Paul is the funniest character in the movie (I’ll never not laugh at the hot tub line), but he also acts as an important moral foil. Soon Paul’s rebellious sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell) decides to hop in the race for personal reasons of her own, and things really start to get messy at Carver High.

The standard critical appreciation of Election considers Payne’s film a political satire. The original 1999 Washington Post review, the highest rated for Election on Metacritic, called the film a “razor-sharp indictment of the American Dream.” Roger Ebert called Election “a parable for elections in general.” In a recent Vanity Fair article that praised the film for being as relevant as ever to our current political climate, Payne says President Barack Obama told him, twice, that Election is his favorite political film.

In that same article, though, Payne himself says this was not his intention. “I wasn’t seeing it so much as a political metaphor,” Payne says. “I knew it was in there — I just thought it was a fun little comedy.”

The truth is somewhere in the middle. Election is an evisceration of American politics in the sense that the dynamics in our political system that ought to be eviscerated are all outgrowths of human folly: ambition, desire, shame, insecurity. As Matt Singer, the film critic for ScreenCrush, so succinctly puts it in his Letterboxd review: “I like that it's called Election, not *The* Election, because it’s as much about the agonizing process of making choices in life as it is the results of a single student council president race.” Politics is the battlefield, sure, but it’s really only the context for a story about ethics and morality.

Speaking of which: what is the difference? Election deftly avoids the question, but I’ll lay it out here. Ethics are externally driven; they are norms of right and wrong based on the culture you are living in. Morals are internally driven; your morals are what you deem to be right or wrong, regardless of what society tells you. When Jim chides Dave earlier in the film, he’s saying that not only is having an affair with your student ethically problematic, but that Dave should know himself, internally, that it is wrong.

What’s notable about both scenes in the film that bring up the distinction is that neither one manages to define morals. In the classroom scene, Tracy defines ethics as “rules of conduct determined by a culture at a certain time in history.” After being cut off by narration, she continues: “And ethics are...” before the bell rings. She starts to define ethics twice. This might seem like a continuity error, but I will give Payne the benefit of the doubt that this slip is intentional. Election suggests that ethics is definable, but morals are much more slippery.

The characters in Election are governed by ethical standards. When multiple characters meddle in the election they cover up their actions not because they think they have done something morally wrong, but because they recognize they have broken some form of ethical conduct. In fact, they almost always think they have done something right.

The morality Election posits is fuzzy: we might think of ourselves as trying to do the right thing, but we are often driven by our basest desires (a point delightfully emphasized by the primal screams employed by the soundtrack in characters’ most emotionally heightened moments). The glaring exception is Paul: in crucial moments he places the well being of others above himself. These decisions do not benefit him, and yet he’s not really fazed by how it all turns out.

So is Jim right when he says that “our actions, all of them, can carry serious consequences”? In a literal sense, yes. The decisions made by each character in Election, no matter how small the choice, profoundly alter the trajectory of their lives.

On the other hand, these characters end up roughly the same people as they are at the beginning of the film. “You can’t interfere with destiny,” Tracy tells us. “And if you try to interfere, the same thing is just going to happen anyway.” The choices we make define where we end up. But our moral tendencies are basically immutable. We define who we are.

This malleability is what makes Election such great fodder for political analogy 20 years later, and it’s what will make critics 20 years from now say the same thing. The human experience, as with the political process, is fundamentally about making choices and reckoning with how to live with ourselves, mistakes and all. Election never gets so preachy as to tip the balance of this existential crisis. Instead, it pontificates on these lofty ideas in a small-scale, laugh-out-loud high school comedy, a true feat.

There are many retrospectives of 1999 movies going on right now. Many consider it to be the best movie year ever. But the movies typically given the 1999 crown, such as Fight Club or The Matrix, are high-concept extravaganzas that, while impressive, conduct a whole lot of frat house faux-philosophizing. Election, meanwhile, is doing some real moral searching. If its conclusions are more unclear than those other films, it is only because it mirrors our own moral tendencies. Election is the best film of 1999 because it is a piece of extraordinary writing full of perfectly calibrated performances, and it makes me want to be a morally better person. Or wait, maybe an ethically better person. I’m not sure. What’s the difference?

Election: 4 stars