Cheaters (August 3/00)
If the only way to win a scholastic contest was to cheat, would you do it?
That's the question posed in Cheaters, a new HBO movie based on a true story. Jeff Daniels stars as Dr. Plicky, a teacher in a low-class Chicago high school. After he's assigned to head up the academic decathalon team for the third year in a row (after having lost the first two years), he earnestly sets out to win the local competition. His team doesn't win, but rather comes in fifth, still allowing them to move onto the state finals. The team is downtrodden until one of the team members manages to steal a copy of the state test. The team decides to cheat.
Directed with an energetic flair by John Stockwell, Cheaters is more than just movie-of-the-week fodder. Propelled by above-average acting (Daniels has never been better), this is a surprisingly effective movie. Jena Malone proves that she's more than that whiny little girl from Stepmom ("no, dad, that's your job!"), while the other (more unknown) actors do just as well in their roles.
Back to Daniels. This guy is an underused actor who really has been forsaked as of late. I don't know why. He's an excellent actor and fares extremely well when playing an "everyman" character, as he is here. This is a guy that people may wind up hating right off the bat for what he's promoting (cheating by winning vs. losing with honor), but Daniels plays him as a guy who needs this victory to show to himself and to the world that he's not a complete loser.
The movie gets bogged down in its own message towards the end, though. Director Stockwell obviously has an opinion on this issue and wants there to be no mistake. While I understood that this is indeed a serious topic and one that deserves examination, perhaps a more even-handed approach would have been more appropriate. Maybe it was necessary for them to cheat, but didn't anyone suffer from their actions? The school that lost? These are questions that were not raised.
Nevertheless, the material is compelling enough to ensure that Cheaters does not wind up in the same breath as Hitman's Run or some other such low-grade straight-to-cable feature.