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Paying our respects: “Election”

Sunday marked one year until American citizens can exercise their right to vote in the 2012 presidential election.

For some, the vote will go to incumbent President Barack Obama. For others, it may go to any of the potential candidates who are campaigning in the Republican primaries with hopes of making it to the 2012 ballot.

Until a victor is decided, the next year or so will be filled with candidates playing dirty, engaging in mudslinging to secure their victory. While we would like to believe that we will pick the right person to lead our country, reports have already begun circling that expose candidates’ hidden skeletons, such as various sexual harassment allegations leveled against Republican candidate Herman Cain. It’s these unflattering portrayals of our future leaders that make us begin to wonder just who these people are.

Are there really any morals or ethics in politics, or is it just a platform for a candidate to run upon? What’s the difference between the two? These are all questions posed by Matthew Broderick’s character, Jim McAllister, a high school teacher at the white bread Omaha, Neb., institution known as George Washington Carver High in director Alexander Payne’s 1999 film, “Election.”

Payne’s sharp satire takes a look at the political machine within the framework of a student government election at this suburban school, and in many instances shows a more evenhanded and unbiased look at the way politics work than more adult-oriented fare like 1997’s “Wag the Dog.”

For one, there is Tracy Flick, a real “go-getter,” as described by McAllister in the opening scenes of the film. Flick is a precocious high school senior to say the least, whose need to rival her mother’s professional success alienates her from her peers and leads many to draw comparisons to various former presidents criticized for daddy issues.

Flick is hell-bent on winning a position as student government president, and she takes the time to tailor her campaign much in the same way as a true politician. Along her path to success, Flick has an affair with a married schoolteacher and close friend of McAllister. She also takes desperate measures to ensure her more popular competitors bite the dust come Election Day.

Her chief competitor, star football player Paul Metzler (Chris Klein), is a Ron Paul-type whom McAllister encourages to step up against Flick following a skiing accident that removes him from the football season. Nobody really understands why Metzler is running, other than he’s able to procure a following based on his football skills, but when it comes to public speaking and standing up for important issues, Metzler flounders in both hilarious and familiar ways to anyone who’s ever seen a politician fumble with their words.

Then, there’s McAllister, whose daily misfortunes are the centerpiece of “Election.” When Flick reveals to her mother that she’s having an affair with McAllister’s best friend, Dave, who eventually loses his job and wife, it causes the normally pleasant McAllister to hold a grudge against the school and Flick.

This puts McAllister in steep moral and ethical opposition of Flick, though what he believes is right is eventually challenged by those questions he poses at the beginning of the film. McAllister cheats on his wife with Dave’s, pits the helpless Metzler against the formerly unopposed Flick and succumbs to shaving votes in Metzler’s favor.

What McAllister perceives as doing the right thing is, in many ways, not at all the case, and so he’s relegated to the moral sewers in which many of the film’s supposed do-gooders, such as Flick, dwell. The film doesn’t leave you questioning morals and ethics, but rather what motivates one’s moral and ethical choices.

In the case of McAllister, it’s revenge and a search for self-fulfillment in his observably mundane life. For Flick, it’s selfishness and a need to match her mother’s success.

Despite McAllister’s wishes, in the end, he is not so different from Flick, and that’s why “Election” is as potent today as it was in 1999. Regardless of who you put on the platform in any election, a candidate will mold their morals and ethics to what they believe their audience wants. But searching for that underlying motivation is key.

While “Election” doesn’t say anything new regarding the political process, it certainly offers a more thoughtful interpretation of the sort of environments where the people who teach, protect and lead us may come from. While there is much more to “Election” in terms of subtext, the aforementioned factors are the most ongoing in terms of relevance, and may provide viewers with a chance to view the career-minded political spectrum in a whole new way.