Election (1999 film)

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Theatrical release poster
Directed byAlexander Payne
Screenplay by
Based onElection
by Tom Perrotta
Produced by
CinematographyJames Glennon
Edited byKevin Tent
Music byRolfe Kent
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release date
  • April 23, 1999 (1999-04-23) (United States)
Running time
103 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$8.5–25 million[1][2]
Box office$17.2 million[1]

Election is a 1999 American black comedy film directed by Alexander Payne from a screenplay by Payne and Jim Taylor, based on Tom Perrotta's 1998 novel of the same name.

The plot revolves around a student body election and satirizes politics and high school life. The film stars Matthew Broderick as Jim McAllister, a popular high school social studies teacher, and Reese Witherspoon as Tracy Flick, an overachieving student whom he dislikes. When Tracy runs for student government president, Jim sabotages her candidacy by backing a rival candidate and tampering with the ballot count.

Although not a commercial success, Election received widespread critical acclaim, along with an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, a Golden Globe nomination for Witherspoon for Best Actress – Motion Picture Comedy or Musical, and three Independent Spirit Awards including Best Feature Film in 1999.


Jim McAllister teaches U.S. history and civics at Carver High School in Omaha, Nebraska. One of his students is Tracy Flick, an overachieving junior whom McAllister perceives as insufferable and whose mother Judith encourages her to strive for success. Earlier in the year, Jim's colleague and best friend, geometry teacher Dave Novotny, was fired from his job and divorced by his wife Linda after grooming Tracy and engaging in a sexual relationship with her. While Jim felt Dave needed to suffer consequences, he has become resentful of Tracy.

Appalled by Tracy's unopposed run for student government president, Jim persuades Paul Metzler, a popular, good-natured, but dimwitted football player, to enter the race. Sidelined from football with a broken leg sustained in a skiing accident, Paul finds his candidacy gives him purpose. It also infuriates Tracy, who expects to run unchallenged, and resents Paul's popularity and privileged upbringing.

Tammy Metzler, Paul's adopted younger sister, is dumped by her girlfriend Lisa Flanagan, who becomes Paul's girlfriend and campaign manager. Tammy exacts revenge by running for president herself. In her speech at a school assembly, she denounces student government as a sham and vows to dissolve it if she wins, rallying the students to a rowdy standing ovation. The principal, Walt Hendricks, retaliates by suspending her.

Late one Sunday night while working on the school yearbook, Tracy sees that one of her campaign posters has come unstuck from the wall. Trying to secure it, she accidentally rips the poster apart, then furiously destroys the other candidates' campaign posters and discards them in a dumpster, unaware that Tammy is watching. The next day, Jim confronts Tracy, suspecting that she removed the posters. Tracy feigns innocence and trades threats with Jim, but Tammy rescues her by appearing with the torn posters and falsely claiming responsibility. Tammy is expelled and her name struck from the ballot.

The day before the election, Jim has a tryst with Linda, Dave's ex-wife. Linda asks Jim to rent a motel room for an afterschool rendezvous, but she fails to show up. When Jim drives to Linda's house to find her, he is stung by a bee on his eyelid. He returns home to find Linda and his wife Diane talking. Knowing Linda has exposed their encounter, he spends the night in his car.

Jim oversees the tally of the ballots, which finds Tracy winning by a single vote. Seeing Tracy peering in on the vote count and preemptively celebrating, he spitefully disposes of two of Tracy's ballots, throwing the election to Paul. The discarded ballots are later discovered, and Tracy becomes president. Jim is forced to resign, and the election rigging makes headlines. Diane divorces him, taking the house and most of their joint assets.

Publicly humiliated, Jim leaves Nebraska and fulfills his dream of moving to New York City. He becomes a tour guide at the American Museum of Natural History and begins dating Jillian, a fellow museum worker. Paul develops an active social life at the University of Nebraska, though without Lisa, who dumps him. Tammy finds a new girlfriend at her all-girls private Catholic school. Tracy attends Georgetown University, where she similarly isolates herself from her peers due to her work-centric nature, and is dismayed that many of her classmates were admitted primarily through connections. Tracy misses Dave's intellect and wonders if he became a novelist as she believed he would; the film shows Dave working in a hardware store in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he now lives with his parents.

On a visit to Washington, D.C., Jim spots Tracy getting into a limousine with congressman Mike Geiger, a Republican representative from Nebraska. Infuriated that she will go through life as she did at Carver, he hurls a cup of soda at the limousine's backglass before fleeing. The film ends with Jim at the museum posing a question to a group of elementary school children; an overeager little girl is the only one to respond. He ignores her.



Producers Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa sent director Alexander Payne an unpublished manuscript from novelist Tom Perrotta called "Election" in 1996. Payne was initially uninterested in directing a high school movie, but changed his mind after he read the manuscript. "It was set in a high school, but it wasn’t a high school story, per se. Also what attracted me was the formal exercise of doing a movie with multiple points of view and multiple voice-overs," said Payne.[3] The novel's rights were sold to Payne in January 1997 and it was officially published in March 1998.

The novel was inspired by the following two key events: the 1992 United States presidential election, in which Ross Perot entered as a third-party candidate (a move echoed by Tammy Metzler), and a 1992 incident at Memorial High School in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, in which a pregnant student was elected homecoming queen, but staff announced a different winner and burned the ballots to cover it up.[4][5]

The film uses a number of stylized techniques in its storytelling, particularly through the use of freeze frames, flashbacks and voiceovers, which allow sections of the narrative to be delivered from the points of view of the four main characters (Jim, Tracy, Paul, and Tammy).[6]

The film was primarily shot on location around the Omaha metro area in the fall of 1997,[7][8] most notably in Papillion, Bellevue and the Dundee neighborhood. Papillion-La Vista Senior High School portrayed the fictitious Carver High School with many of the background extras being actual enrolled students at the time. Minor scenes were filmed at Younkers in Westroads Mall, the Old Market and the Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium.

Alternate ending[edit]

The film's original ending, which was received poorly by test audiences, was not known until a rough workprint of it was found in a box of VHS tapes at a yard sale in 2011.[9][10][11] This ending also appears in the third draft of the script, which can be read online.[12] It is faithful to the book: Jim stays in Omaha and is hired as a used car salesman by one of his former students instead of moving to New York. Tracy encounters Jim while looking to buy a car and the two settle their differences before she has him sign her yearbook.


Election was not a box office success as it grossed only $17.2 million against a budget of $8.5-$25 million.[1]

Critical response[edit]

Election received critical acclaim. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds a rating of 92%, based on 114 reviews, with an average rating of 7.90/10. The critical consensus reads, "Election successfully combines dark humor and intelligent writing in this very witty and enjoyable film."[13] On Metacritic, the film has a score of 83 out of 100, based on 33 reviews, indicating "universal acclaim".[14] Audiences surveyed by CinemaScore gave the film a grade "B−" on scale of A to F.[15] It later placed at #5 in the first annual Village Voice Film Poll.[16]

Roger Ebert gave the film three and a half out of four stars, praising Witherspoon and Payne, and saying, "...here is a movie that is not simply about an obnoxious student, but also about an imperfect teacher, a lockstep administration, and a student body that is mostly just marking time until it can go out into the world and occupy valuable space".[17]

Todd McCarthy of Variety wrote: "Brandishes the sort of intelligent wit and bracing nastiness that will make it more appealing to discerning adults than to teens who just want to have fun."[6]

Desson Howe from The Washington Post recommended the film, saying it was "the satire of the season, a hilarious, razor-sharp indictment of the American Dream," also praising Payne for finding "a perfect fulcrum between humor and tragedy, between black comedy and poignancy."[18]

According to Payne, it is also President Barack Obama's favorite political film.[3]


Election is ranked #61 on Bravo's "100 Funniest Movies", #389 on Empire's "500 Greatest Movies of All Time" and #9 on Entertainment Weekly's list of the "50 Best High School Movies",[19] while Witherspoon's performance was ranked at #45 on the list of the "100 Greatest Film Performances of All Time" by Premiere.[20]

Year Award Category Nominee(s) Result Ref.
1999 Academy Awards Best Adapted Screenplay Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor Nominated [21]
1999 Golden Globe Awards Best Actress - Motion Picture Comedy or Musical Reese Witherspoon Nominated [22]
1999 Independent Spirit Awards Best Feature Election Won [23]
Best Direction Alexander Payne Won
Best Screenplay Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor Won
Best Female Lead Reese Witherspoon Nominated
Best Debut Performance Jessica Campbell Nominated
1999 Los Angeles Film Critics Association Best Actress Reese Witherspoon Runner-up [24]
Next Generation Award Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor Won
1999 New York Film Critics Circle Best Screenplay Won [25]
1999 National Society of Film Critics Best Film Election 3rd place [26]
Best Screenplay Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor 2nd place
Best Actress Reese Witherspoon Won
1999 National Board of Review Excellence in filmmaking Election Won [27]
1999 Writers Guild of America Awards Best Adapted Screenplay Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor Won [28]

Home media[edit]

Election was released on DVD on October 19, 1999, and Blu-ray on January 20, 2009. A special edition Blu-ray was released by The Criterion Collection on December 16, 2017, with a 4K restoration of the film.[29]


  1. ^ a b c "Election (1999) - Financial Information". The Numbers. Retrieved December 17, 2018.
  2. ^ Election at Box Office Mojo
  3. ^ a b Jacobs, Matthew (May 7, 2014). "Pick Flick: An Oral History Of 'Election,' 15 Years Later". The Huffington Post. Retrieved October 26, 2015. Barack Obama has told me twice that it's his favorite political film.
  4. ^ "Officials Deny Pregnant Girl School Crown". The New York Times. October 14, 1992. Retrieved May 1, 2010.
  5. ^ Crace, John (February 21, 2009). "A life in writing: Tom Perrotta". The Guardian. London. Retrieved May 1, 2010.
  6. ^ a b McCarthy, Todd (April 19, 1999). "Election". Variety.
  7. ^ Ingalls, Chris (February 9, 2018). "Like Real Life 'Election' Is Dark, Hilarious, and Cringe-worthy". PopMatters. Archived from the original on February 9, 2018.
  8. ^ "MTV's ELECTION". Ain't It Cool News. November 26, 1997. Archived from the original on February 5, 2021.
  9. ^ "See The Original, Unused Ending To Election". Jezebel. May 16, 2011. Retrieved July 12, 2022.
  10. ^ Grant, Drew (May 17, 2011). "The original ending to Alexander Payne's "Election"". Salon. Retrieved July 1, 2019.
  11. ^ Garber, Megan (October 14, 2016). "Election's Alternate Ending". The Atlantic. Retrieved July 1, 2019.
  12. ^ Payne, Alexander; Taylor, Jim (July 22, 1997). "ELECTION (Third Draft)". Retrieved August 15, 2021.
  13. ^ Election at Rotten Tomatoes
  14. ^ Election at Metacritic Edit this at Wikidata
  15. ^ "Cinemascore". Archived from the original on December 20, 2018. Retrieved July 25, 2019.
  16. ^ "Film Poll: Top 10 Movies by Year, 1999-2016". Village Voice. February 13, 2018. Retrieved August 18, 2020.
  17. ^ Ebert, Roger (April 30, 1999). "Election Movie Review (1999)". RogerEbert.com. Retrieved November 27, 2016.
  18. ^ Howe, Desson (May 7, 1999). "'Election' Wins By a Landslide". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on August 16, 2000. Retrieved June 9, 2021.
  19. ^ EW Staff (August 28, 2015). "50 Best High School Movies". Entertainment Weekly.
  20. ^ "100 Greatest Performances of All Time". Premiere. April 2006. p. 60. Retrieved May 18, 2023.
  21. ^ "The 72nd Academy Awards - 2000". Oscars.org. Retrieved July 15, 2020.
  22. ^ "Winners & Nominees 2000". goldenglobes.com. Retrieved July 15, 2020.
  23. ^ Clinton, Paul (March 26, 2000). "'Election' voted best film in Spirit Awards". CNN. Retrieved October 31, 2022.
  24. ^ King, Susan (December 12, 1999). "The Insider' Wins Top L.A. Film Critics Award". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved October 31, 2022.
  25. ^ Jones, Oliver (December 17, 1999). "N.Y. crix tap 'Turvy' tops". Variety. Retrieved October 31, 2022.
  26. ^ McKinley, Jesse (January 10, 2000). "'Malkovich' and 'Topsy-Turvy' Tie for Critics' Prize". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved October 31, 2022.
  27. ^ "1999 Award Winners | 1999 Awards Gala". National Board of Review. Retrieved October 31, 2022.
  28. ^ "Previous Nominees & Winners". Writers Guild Awards. Archived from the original on March 28, 2016. Retrieved October 31, 2022.
  29. ^ "Election". The Criterion Collection. Retrieved January 29, 2023.

External links[edit]