Movie Reviews

Election (1999) Ending, Explained

The ending of the 1999 movie Election unfolds the consequences of each character’s actions while offering plenty of room for viewers to make up their minds about the villains and heroes of a story with so many moral dilemmas. Directed by Alexander Payne, Election is a timeless portrayal of how school dynamics are reflections of the outside world, and it addresses the effects of letting work and personal life collide, predicting many turnarounds of the millennium ahead in a compelling microhabitat: a high-school election spirals out of control, exposing the worst of humanity’s greed and the idiosyncrasies of ambitious minds.

Election is no traditional teen comedy, counting on plenty of cursing, sex, and polemic gender dynamics. The stellar cast is totally in synch and nails their contrasting chemistry, especially Reese Witherspoon as the overachieving Tracy Flick, who is running for student government president, and Matthew Broderick, who played the equally controversial Ferris Bueller, as Jim McCallister, a teacher who gets in Tracy’s way by manipulating the student council in favor of a personal vendetta he pursues against the brilliant girl. A succession of controversial attitudes and desperate measures turn the election into an unpredictable dispute but don’t stop the narrative from coming full circle in the end.

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On the fateful election day, Jim does something that supposedly goes against all his personal and professional values, though the audience can see it coming from the moment he cleans the staff room’s fridge in Election‘s opening minutes. Thinking he’s doing a good thing by organizing the fridge and getting rid of uneaten leftovers, he fails to notice that he spills food all over the floor by missing the trash can, doubling the custodian’s work. The truth is, Jim thinks he’s doing the right thing, but he’s only being hurtful.

Jim feels threatened by Tracy Flick’s intelligence and ambition and is revolted by her privileges, from her over-reliance on her mother’s authority to how she gets away with ripping Paul’s poster. He decides to fix the election by getting rid of two of her ballots. Since she would have technically only won by a single vote, his conscience is at ease. Deep in his heart, though, Jim fixes the election because he wants Tracy to have the first taste of what defeat feels like, fulfilling one of his deepest and most selfish desires.

Jim persuades Paul (Chris Klein) to run for student government president because he knows the boy is too naive to spoil things and is easy to manipulate. And yet, alone with his voting ballot, Paul ruins Jim’s plan by making a decision by himself for a change: he votes for Tracy since he thinks voting for himself doesn’t feel right. Giving justice to Election‘s irreverent political comedy, Paul’s decision leads to a joke when it’s revealed Tracy won the election by one vote, meaning that if Paul had voted for himself, she would have lost.

While Paul might seem to be the most moral character in Election, his eye-rolling passivity feels more like a flaw than a superb trait. He isn’t even aware of half of the things he does during the election. In the end, Larry Fouch (Nicholas D’Agosto) is the one who truly stands out as the movie’s moral compass, having a key role in the ballot situation. After Jim throws two of Tracy’s votes away and proves himself to be one of the worst teachers in cinema, Larry stands up to him and the principal in order to ensure each of the ballots is correctly counted, and the right president is elected.

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Since Larry is the first to count the ballots, he knows how easy it’d be to cheat since all it would take to shake the election’s results is getting rid of two ballots. This explains why he immediately suspects Jim did something when their votes diverge. Larry even initially refuses to tell Jim about the results before he counts the ballots himself, which shows his commitment to justice. Perhaps Larry simply doesn’t like to have his effectiveness contested, but regardless of the primary reason, he doesn’t give up until he solves the problem with morality and justice.

One of the best dark comedies of the ’90s, Election ends with Jim resigning and the real winner of the election announced. Tracy leads a successful student council and stands out as the best among the best in her senior year, getting accepted into Georgetown, just as she wanted. Although she gets what can be considered a happy ending to the whole election conflict, Tracy carries on without hardly any friends and is still infatuated with Dave (Mark Harelik), meaning that even with all her best achievements, nothing can really fill the void in her social life. Her work-centric nature remains unchanged during her college years.

Years later, Tracy is spotted by Jim in Washington D.C. getting inside a limousine with an important congressman, implying that she ended up becoming the successful woman she always dreamed of. Election‘s test screenings gave Tracy a different ending than previously planned because the final scene shows how Tracy is clearly going places while Jim is stuck in reverse. The man next to her is open for interpretation, though; perhaps she finally sorted out her social life and is now in a relationship with the congressman. On the other hand, she might as well be lonely and without friends even with all her money and success.

It’s easy to say Jim Mcallister is a good teacher, a caring husband, and a good friend when one doesn’t have access to his thoughts, but the truth is he is too self-absorbed to understand how he’s the sole culprit of his downfall. Jim’s misplaced vendetta against Tracy originates from the bitter ending of the relationship between his best friend, Dave, another of the worst fictional teachers in movies, with the student. Their romance had everything to become a scandal, but Tracy’s influential mother managed to keep the whole thing a secret while ensuring Dave would still be dismissed.

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Blinded by his annoyance toward Tracy’s bossy personality and the sense of companionship between him and Dave, Jim blames her for the end of his friend’s career. He fails to see the abusive nature of the teacher-student romance and how Dave is the only one to blame since he took advantage of Tracy’s loneliness and naivety. Additionally, Jim is far from the good friend he thinks he is when he decides to cheat on his wife with Dave’s ex. In Election‘s final scene, Jim dismisses the only girl who looks energetically eager to answer his question, implying he hasn’t changed at all and still feels resentment against ambitious young women.

Election provokes the audience to see beyond each character’s surface: Matthew Broderick’s Jim McCallister is a fascinating character despite his egocentric personality, but his toxic masculinity prevents him from maturing in an ever-changing scenario, causing him to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. On the other hand, Tracy Flick’s privileged background and overbearing attitude shouldn’t stop her from achieving what she’s fighting for. At the end of the day, it’s all a clash of morals, and viewers are forced to take sides whether they like it or not, which applies to real-life scenarios as well: it’s difficult to be apolitical when life unfolds in a series of institutions.

More: 10 Best Election Movies Of All Time

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