Before watching the movie:
I never knew much more about this movie than that Matthew Broderick is in it and it’s probably some kind of political satire, so it always lived in my head near movies like Swing Vote, Welcome to Mooseport, and The Campaign.
On taking a closer look, this is centered around a high school class president race, and the central conflict seems to be between a teacher and a student, so I’m intrigued at the prospect of a more unorthodox satire and wondering what political parallels could develop from this dynamic. Or maybe I’ve gotten it completely wrong and this is just a study of high school politics, but I don’t think so. Stories that came from novels generally have some kind of more applicable theme.
After watching the movie:
Jim McAllister puts his heart and soul into teaching high school history and civics. He cares deeply about almost all his students, but keeps Tracy Flick at a distance, because when Tracy and Jim’s best friend and fellow teacher Dave Novotny got caught in an affair, Dave got fired and divorced by his wife Linda, but nothing happened to Tracy, who only continued working hard on her rising stardom. So it rubs Jim the wrong way when Tracy runs for student government president unopposed, and as the faculty sponsor of student government and the election, the prospect of having to work closely with Tracy as the president horrifies and disgusts Jim and he talks popular student Paul, who’s been benched for his senior year of football due to a broken leg, into also running. Paul’s sister Tammy felt she’d found true love with her best friend Lisa, but Lisa suddenly declares she was only experimenting, and Tammy was taking things too far, and immediately starts dating Paul instead, and enthusiastically managing his campaign. Out of revenge, Tammy enters the race at the last minute on a nihilist platform, pledging to dismantle student government if elected so as to spare future classes from sham elections. Meanwhile, Jim and his wife Diane have been spending a lot of time with Dave’s wife Linda, supporting her as a newly separated mother. Jim and Diane, despite having lost their passion, have also started trying to get pregnant, and Jim finds fantasies of Linda, or even more disturbingly, Tracy, entering his head. Tammy is frustrated by her unworthy and vexatiously popular competition, but just quadruples her efforts to secure the win she’s confident she deserves.
I was not exactly thrilled to find this is a “middle aged teacher cheats on his wife” story, and that mess was about as claustrophobic to get through as I found The Graduate to be. But this has a more apparent thematic purpose than the situation in The Graduate. Jim easily justifies his terrible behavior that’s almost exactly what he chastised Dave for, to almost the same results, because when he’s getting what he wants, he can’t see the parallel. Also I don’t think he’s held by the narrative to be in any way actually in the right. And as much as Tracy is the kind of person who will climb to the top on anybody else’s back and overly entitled in her sense of being owed success for her work, that isn’t shown to be a good enough reason for Jim’s sabotage of her, to the point that I could call Jim the villain protagonist of the story. While Tracy, Tammy, and Paul also take shifts narrating, Jim does take the largest share of the viewpoint.
Not every political comedy is a satire. This isn’t much of a comedy either. It comes off to me as more of an irreverent drama. It doesn’t have direct parallels to the world of adult politics, vague inspiration from the Ross Perot spoiler campaign aside. It’s not about political systems, it’s about petty people using politics as weapons. And that’s maybe more relatable than politics itself. I’m glad I watched it and I’m glad it’s over.