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RCE Info



The Criterion Collection // R // December 12, 2017
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Francis Rizzo III | posted December 7, 2017 | E-mail the Author
In 10 Words or Less
Hilariously dark observation on politics, ambition and desire

Reviewer's Bias*
Loves: The Criterion Collection, Election
Likes: Matthew Broderick, Alexander Payne
Dislikes: Bees, politics
Hates: Creeps, adulterers

The Movie
It would be hard for co-writer/director Alexander Payne to imagine that, when adapting a dismissed, unpublished Tom Perrotta novel for MTV Films, that he would be a part of crafting an archetype that would become shorthand in politics, but that's exactly what happened when Election brought the world the tiny dynamo known as Tracy Flick, a career-defining role for Reese Witherspoon and an indelible character in a classic film. In this tale of love, lust and deceit set in the midst of a high-school election, we get a story of a young woman on the rise and a man on the decline, and the crossed-paths that fatefully brought them together.

Flick--a classic Type-A overachiever--is running for president of the student government of her Omaha, Nebraska high school, and this potential capper on her ascendant academic career is annoying one of her teachers, Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick.) The reason why is Mr. McAllister's best friend and fellow teacher lost his job and his family for having an affair with Tracy. So, aiming to knock Flick down a peg or two, Mr. McAllister pushes the school's football star Paul (Chris Klein) to enter the race against Tracy, under the guise that to allow Tracy to win unopposed would be bad for democracy. Played by a genuine Nebraskan in Klein--making his film debut--Paul is rich, dopey and good-hearted--and is the antithesis of Tracy in every way, setting up a perfect clash for the presidency.

The thing is, Paul and Tracy aren't the only ones in the race, as Paul's sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell) has thrown her hat in the ring, the result of her best friend having dropped her for Paul following Tammy's rejected lesbian advances. Hurt and angry, Tammy is running on the nihilist platform, which gets the school's administration riled up, and soon the election becomes a major problem for everyone involved, be it the secretly-seething Tracy, the sweetly-confused Paul or the morally-conflicted Jim, who finds he has a thing for his best friend's ex-wife and a desire to see Tracy fall on her face.

Using first-person narration from his characters, Payne pulls together a wonderfully-realized send-up of politics in a slightly heightened reality, while subverting expectations by making the seemingly-unsympathetic teacher's pet into a victim the audience can side with, while making the very unsympathetic McAllister--with his bad, selfish decisions-- into the film's protagonist, almost daring the audience to sympathize with his descent. We spend more time with him than we do with any other character, and the result nearly humanizes his awfulness, even while always--and often subtly--pointing out his failings.

Part of the reason why McAlister can keep the audience following is the fact that he's played by Broderick, in a performance that inverts the characters audiences grew to love him for. Another actor might have lost viewers earlier in the film--there's some truly distasteful stuff happening here--but Broderick projects a sense of youthful ignorance to reality that a man his age should have left behind years ago. It makes him a great foil to Witherspoon's Flick, who is his opposite--an old soul with a young woman's face. Witherspoon's mannerisms and deliveries are amongst the best she's ever given, fluctuating between biting and wholesome, steely strong and tissue soft--code switching with the best of them and hiding her true feelings.

The remainder of the main cast is uniformly excellent, especially Klein's good-guy dummy, Campbell's wonderfully pioneering outsider, Phil Reeves' matter-of-fact principal and Mark Harelik's disgraced educator. The film is filled out by amateurs and first-timers, including some remarkably natural performers, and the effect creates a sense of high-school realism that is unique amongst such films. The enhancement the actors provide to this film is an endorsement for the value of good casting.

Of course, good writing and solid direction help a bit, and Payne (with the aid of co-writer Jim Taylor) provides both, resulting in a smartly-written adaptation that's directed with style that avoids gimmicks in deference to technique. There are so many burned-into-your-brain moments peppered throughout that are the result of a delightful combination of the aforementioned ingredients, along with excellent editing from Kevin Tent, a great score from Rolfe Kent and a few expertly executed music cues. Even if the story wasn't great (it is) the way it is told would raise it above the rest of the crowd, earning it a spot as a highlight of one of cinema's best years ever.

The Disc
Election (spine number 904) arrives on one Blu-ray disc in a clear keepcase with a dual-sided cover (featuring a strategically-positioned Pick Flick button) and a fold-out pamphlet. The minimalist Criterion menu provides the choice to watch the film, select scenes, adjust languages and check out the special features. There are no audio options, but subtitles are available in English.

The Quality
It's hard to argue with a presentation that was overseen by the film's director, so the look of this 2.45:1. 1080p, AVC-encoded transfer obviously meets with Payne's approval. Which means that the slightly cool (and somewhat greenish) color--which differs from previous releases--must be what was intended, and the results are very natural and pleasing to the eye. Fine detail is quite high (lots of little background--and foreground--details to enjoy throughout this film) and black levels are nice and deep. Interestingly, it looks like, for much of the film, the framing has been adjusted slightly upward, revealing more of the top of the image, and cutting off a bit at the bottom in comparison to previous home-video editions. The new 4K master from an original Super 35mm negative has been given a full clean-up and looks spotless, with a health grain structure. Even after just 18 years, an excellent restoration has had a great effect.

The remastered 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track here doesn't have a great deal of ear-grabbing moments--Election just isn't that kind of film--but when the signature cues appear, they will get your attention, while the surrounds ensure the score adds tremendously to the feel of the movie. Dialogue is clean and atmospheric effects fill out the soundstage effectively. The overall track has solid power and separation amongst the elements, completing the aesthetic package well.

The Extras
Payne's commentary from the original 1999 DVD is carried over on this disc, and despite the stretches of dead air that occur at times, it's a pretty informative track, as Payne talks about production and story details (pointing out easter eggs along the way), his pet peeve movie tropes, how the film was cast and his reflections on the movie. He also talks about some cut scenes, including the alternate ending, which are sadly not included on this disc.

If you'd like to get a peek at that discarded ending however, you can see part of it in 2016's TruIinside: Election, an impressive 40:37 documentary on the film, from TruTV. Almost the entire featured cast takes part (sans Witherspoon), along with Payne, Perrotta, several members of the crew and a few critics (Matt Singer and Amy Nicholson), as they discuss the film from top to bottom, touching on the story's origin, its abandoned status, the extras, issues with the school district and more. Even without the clips of the original ending this would be a great watch for fans, but with it, it's even better.

Though Witherspoon wasn't on hand for TruInside, she did sit down with Criterion for an interview of her own, "Who Cares? I Do!" (10:15). Obvious in her love for the film, she covers how she got involved with Election, the creation of her character (including her accent), the reaction to the movie and its legacy. Witherspoon's sunny disposition and positive recollections of the film makes for a smile-inducing good time.

One thing Criterion does often that's much appreciated is include a director's early work, to show where they got their start. Here, Payne's 1990 UCLA thesis film The Passion of Martin (48:53) gets a full restoration, letting viewers see the basis for the skills he would continue to develop on his way to Hollywood success. The film is a decent Taxi Driver-like ridealong with a clearly-insane photographer, as he obsesses over the first woman to show him affection. Dark, but not without humor, it's unfortunately more timely than ever.

The film comes with a text director's statement from the current-day Payne, in which he expresses his embarrassment over parts of the film and his appreciation for others. There's also a video intro from Payne (10:47), where he talks about his early love of movies, the films that influenced him, his college experience, his love of editing and what he learned from the experience of making the short film and everything that came from it.

An amusing bit of ephemera is found in a 1:31 report by the local Omaha CBS affiliate, with short interviews with Payne, Broderick and Klein, on-set footage and a heavy local angle.

The film's trailer (which seems to be for the film's original home video release) runs 2:30, and is very plot heavy and cynical.

The extras wrap up with the 10-panel fold-out pamphlet, which includes, alongside the disc and movie details, an essay by critic Dana Stevens, who discusses the plot of the film and its timeliness at the time of its release (and after.).


The Bottom Line
Nothing is perfect, but Election gets real close, finding the right match between setting and theme, giving a top-notch line-up in front of and behind the camera the opportunity to truly shine, with Witherspoon and Broderick creating an iconic screen pairing. Criterion has delivered this modern classic in excellent shape, and supplemented it with solid extras, both old and new, which should appeal to fans of the film and Payne in general. If you enjoy Election, this is a must have, and if you're not you probably haven't seen it, and here's a great opportunity to do so.

Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.

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*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.

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