We rented the movie Cheaters the other night and finally got around to watching it tonight. It is an HBO original of which I had never heard (since we don’t have HBO) when I saw it at Blockbuster. From the cover and the description on the back, I thought it would be similar to Election—only centered on an academic team and its advisor cheating at an academic decathlon. I was wrong. It lacks the humor of Election, and I didn’t connect with the characters or their motives.
To be fair, Cheaters isn’t trying to be funny. I think it is attempting to spark discussion on inequalities in the public school system. (It is based on a true story and may also be simply trying to tell the story from an insider’s point of view. I don’t know, since I have no idea how closely the story of the movie resembles the actual events.)
The movie presents the students on a Chicago academic team and their advisor as group of underdogs from an underprivileged school who take advantage of the “affirmative action” handed to them when one of their members steals a copy of a decathlon test. The team sees this gift as a leveling of the field between themselves and the team from an overprivileged magnet school that wins the decathlon every year. They win and bring pride to their school, but eventually their secret gets out (thanks to a snitch among them who gets his revenge for being left out of the competition by exposing them to the already suspicious press). The teacher takes the blame, the students face minor punishments, the school feels humiliated, but life goes on and the students on the team cherish the experience for the life wisdom it has given them. Their teacher is a sage who has taught them how to practice civil disobedience by cheating the system and who has equipped them with a one up on how brutal this world really is.
OK. I got a little irritated with that last sentence. I shouldn’t criticize a movie just because I disagree with its worldview. Right? Well, first of all, I’m not even sure it intends to promote one view over another, but if it really is trying to present opposing views on whether or not real cheating committed to “cheat” an unfair system is justifiable, I think it disproportionately gives voice to one side.
First of all, I find it hard to believe that most of the students on the team would agree to cheat wholeheartedly. I’m not saying that they couldn’t be coerced or convinced, but in the movie, only two students even doubt for an instant that cheating is the right—no the righteous—thing to do. Now, I know that they are supposed to be angry at their lot in life, but I think more students, especially students participating on an academic team, would have been either too afraid of the ramifications or too wrapped up in their own desire to prove themselves fairly to welcome the idea of cheating with such open arms.
Secondly, everyone on the team (except the future snitch who is left out of the competition) glimmers with exhilaration right after their win and continues to do so until the end of the movie. Now, I know that, in real life, some of them probably really felt that way, but I think that some of them were probably dealing with guilt and fear, as well as disappointment at the fact that they didn’t really earn the glory. I’m not asking for the movie to browbeat us into being moral test-takers and perfect students, I just think it would have been more realistic and more interesting to present different types of reactions among the students—the types of reactions that occur in real life. (Of course, maybe the real students were brainwashed by the advisor—as one reporter in the movie suggests—and really did feel and react exactly the same way.)
Thirdly, I hate it when movies preach, but I am really surprised that the advisor never—even when he’s having to flee town at the end of the movie—suggests, implies, or flat out states to his students that he lead them down the wrong path. I was secretly hoping he would say that cheating is wrong but at least expected that he would say something to the effect of, “Hey, we did a very stupid thing.” (I’ve watched and loved too many episodes of the Walton’s, I guess.) However, he simply tells them that he’d like them to remember their time together as an act of civil disobedience. Fine. Maybe that’s what they were trying to do, but they also lied, got caught, and risked their hides to commit this act. I don’t think the message that the public school system abandons many of its students would have been muffled by a little realistic self-doubt. (But then again, maybe that’s what happened in real life.)
Lastly, the likening of what these people did to civil disobedience is inaccurate. When Thoreau practiced civil disobedience, he didn’t lie or hide what he was doing. He willingly spent time in jail rather than paying a tax that supported a war he thought would allow the expansion of slavery. He didn’t cheat the system; he refused to participate in the system. Civil Disobedience is a form of protest. How can a protest be heard if no one is supposed to find out about it? If the movie is accurately presenting what happened in real life, then I think that the real team was just pulling a big phrase out of their rear ends and forcing it to stand for what they were really doing—throwing pie in the face of their spoiled little enemies. I can relate to the urge to throw pie but not to the pretend nobility they attach to their cause. However, if the movie is just presenting its own version of what really happened—comparing this cheating escapade to civil disobedience in order to coerce the audience into holding the team in the same light as Gandhi or Thoreau—then I think the movie must have been made by people who wrote really bad papers in English class.
Despite all the ranting above, I don’t think the movie is a total waste of time. It has an interesting topic, and although I don’t think it succeeded in presenting all of the complexities that exist in real life when people are faced with moral dilemmas (I don’t even know if it tried), at least it stimulated my brain a bit. (I’d normally be staring at the TV right now.) Also, Jeff Daniels, who plays the advisor, gives a good performance, especially in the scenes when he is at home with his mother.
Boy will I feel dumb if I find out that the movie hits the real story to a tee. I’ll also feel sad to find out that reality is an even farther stretch from The Walton’s than I already knew: Little Elizabeth says without a hitch, “Goodnight John Boy, don’t forget to get me that crib sheet at breakfast tomorrow so I can beat those darned city folk at the decathlon.”