What is the motivation behind Jim McAllister's resentment of Tracy Flick? Surely a civics teacher would be delighted that one of his students takes such an interest in his subject, and is so driven to succeed. The answer isn't as simple as it might appear. Jim's own explanation is that Flick ruthlessness needs to be countered otherwise her life will be spent crushing the voices of the people around her, although that's based on a partial and unfair view of Flick's affair with his friend and colleague – which destroyed his career and marriage. The irony (in a film full of ironies) is that McAllister's intervention against Flick destroys his own career as well (his marriage he manages to destroy himself).

So there's something else going on as well – the resentment of a mentor who can see that his charge will go on to far greater success than he managed. He's just a civics teacher, but Flick will end up being a politician for real. McAllister might try to comfort himself with the notion that his life is ultimately more rewarding, even after he's lost his job and has to move to New York, but that's just cover for the envy he must feel.

And there is definitely a gendered quality to this antagonism as well, which the film brings out in its darkest moments. McAllister doesn't actually understand women – not his wife, nor the woman he tries to have an affair with. His best friend has related his sexual experiences with Flick, and she becomes sexualised by him as a result – drawn out by the fact that his first move against her is inspired by a porno film, and her face keeps popping into his mind when he's having sex. McAllister's irritation may be that he's not used to "uppity women" telling him what to do, and working with Student Council President Flick for a year presents a sufficient challenge to his authority for him to want to avoid it. But the film suggests that these feelings are curdled by a deeper annoyance that this powerful woman is not sexually available to him.

Although Election is supposed to reflect and satirise in microcosm the American political system, the parallels only go so far. The fundamental tension of politics between the rule of the specialised few and the rule of the many, and the way our system of representative government comes to an uneasy accommodation between the two, is only hinted at in McAllister's lecture about the importance of political choice. Tammy's kamikaze run at the presidency may be a nod to the attractions and dangers of political populism – she is right that in some sense the system prevents genuine change, but her (wildly popular) solution to dissolve the meagre democratic elements of that system would just make the problem worse. These are asides in a film ultimately more interested in dissecting the ways men can have mid-life crises, and drawing out the grim comedy inherent in such situations. It's a subject that becomes a through-line in Alexander Payne's work, and unfortunately it's not one I'm particularly interested in.

The film makes liberal use of voiceover to highlight the characters' feelings, and also their inability to fully understand themselves. It's probably just personal preference, but I do find that the way the technique is deployed tends to trivialise its subjects, reducing them to caricatures. The depths in the film are revealed through the characters' actions and interactions, and gaining access to their thoughts paradoxically puts us at a distance from them. We are given the opportunity to rise above the events we are watching, and feel a smug satisfaction in observing these strange, unsatisfied people and what they get up to. The more confrontational approach would be to eliminate such avenues of escape, so we are truly in the moment when McAllister or Flick lose their minds.

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