Sept. 6, 2000
I just caught “Election” on HBO for the second time, not because it’s all that good, but to confirm my initial impressions of what I thought was wrong with it. I think it’s almost a good movie with an oddly provocative setting -- a high school election -- that seems for a while like it’s actually got a theme and a point, but ultimately does not have either one.
We are led to believe in act one that the theme of this film is going to be: What’s the difference between morals and ethics? That’s a pretty good theme, I think, although quite possibly rather difficult to dramatize. It’s brought up twice in act one and it definitely piqued my interest. I mean, what is the difference between morals and ethics? I’d say in rather broad strokes that morals are knowing what’s right and wrong, and ethics are putting your morals to use. Like I say, I think that’s an interesting theme. Just because you know what’s right and wrong doesn’t mean you are actually doing those things.
Although I would never have thought of it myself, a high school election turns out to be a very rich milieu for dissecting morals from ethics. But the writers don’t seem to accept the theme they’ve put forth and drop it early into act two. The act three they have -- which occurs a year after the high school election -- is, in my humble opinion, entirely wrong for their story.
A government teacher (nicely played by Matthew Broderick) in a Nebraska high school doesn’t like the overly ambitious girl (Reese Witherspoon who is perfect) that’s running unopposed for school president and decides to meddle by encouraging another student to run against her. When the second student, a popular jock, declares his candidacy, so does his weird, budding lesbian sister. Now it’s a three-way race. All right. That’s a good act one that’s clearly going somewhere.
Act two is the election which ends with the teacher meddling even further when the results don’t come out the way he wants. Within this act is a major sub-plot of the teacher starting an affair with a friend’s wife that really hasn’t got a damn thing to do with anything and is mean-spirited, too. Although all of the teacher’s actions have plenty of moral and ethical ramifications, none of them are explored.
Here is a guy who teaches government and civics (which I don’t believe is taught anywhere anymore, not even in Nebraska) that intentionally subverts the electoral process because he simply doesn’t like the girl who seems like she’ll win. That’s a good set-up. To have the teacher immediately caught and fired, then cut to a year later is to not confront the interesting situation that’s been set up over the course of acts one and two.
Instead the former teacher, now a docent at a museum in Washington D. C., throws a cup of coffee at the car Reese Witherspoon is in, which, I must say, seemed really lame.
What if instead the teacher got away with it? What if the whole process can be subverted for your own personal reasons, then you have to go back and teach what a good system it is? At least that’s somewhat ironic.
There are also several moments in this film that I found to be in plain old bad taste. This is what modern-day writers fall back on when they are attempting to be provocative and don’t know what they’re doing. There is a world of difference between being provocative and being shocking. To be provocative you must make people think, which means you have an issue; being shocking is fairly meaningless because it has no resonance and it’s easy to do -- cut to a close-up of a squashed animal in the road, that’s shocking. But if you want to make me think, then you’d better be thinking, too.
Because “Election” lacks a theme and a point, it automatically lacks any real irony, and I found that a little upsetting because it seemed like a richly ironic situation. It has been said that Americans don’t understand irony and can’t write it, and “Election” is proof of that theory.
What we are left with is two-thirds of an interesting movie that fizzles into utter pointless nothingness in its final third. Still, that’s more than we usually get these days. It also goes to show that something as simple as a high school election can be a provocative, ironic setting, providing, of course, that one knows what to do with it.