Taut, intelligent and at times heartbreaking, HBO’s “Cheaters” is a finely tuned telepic that makes astute observations about the invisible walls that divide classes and classrooms in America today. Project also comments on the sorry state of education in our public schools and the moral hypocrisy of public officials.
Based on the 1995 cheating scandal at a Chicago high school, John Stockwell’s film plays like the darker side of the 1987 Edward James Olmos starrer “Stand and Deliver.” Set in a working-class environment, pic tells the story of how high school teacher Dr. Gerald Plecki (Jeff Daniels), desperate for victory, coaches seven of his best students to compete in an elitist academic decathlon. When one of the team members gets hold of a copy of the test, a morally confused Plecki lets his team cheat in order to try to beat their rich cross-town rivals.
As a result of an all-out strategic cheating offensive (anything from an all-day answer-memorization session and programming clues on pagers to writing hints on a stick of gum), the school wins the team competition with the highest total in state history. Of course, the numbers are a little too perfect, and once Illinois officials start sniffing for clues — and a jealous teammate pens a “fictional confessional” — in class, the whole city is taken over by the kind of media frenzy that’s straight out of a Tom Wolfe novel.
Stockwell’s fast-moving script wins over viewers’ sympathies for the kids early on. Decathlon team’s leader is played by the charming Jena Malone (“Stepmom,” “Contact”), who portrays Plecki’s star student with brutal intelligence and pluck. The rest of the younger cast delivers believable performances as smart teens, trapped by their low-income and immigrant backgrounds and betrayed by a school system that rewards athletic achievement only.
Helmer is also smart enough to keep his balance on the moral tightrope of the cheating issue. As the film reveals at one point, a recent survey by “Who’s Who Among American High School Students,” 80% of high-achieving high schoolers admitted to having cheated at least once, half said they didn’t believe cheating was wrong, and 95% said they have never been caught.
In this kind of a murky environment, it’s hard not to feel compassionate about the plight of pic’s posse of cheaters. Yet Stockwell doesn’t look the other way when it comes to pointing the finger at their teacher.
Daniels plays Plecki as a tragic man caught in a dire situation, albeit of his own making. When he tells his students, “I just want you to win, because once you’ve had that feeling, you’ll never want to let it go,” you truly believe in the man’s good intentions.
At times, Daniels’ hangdog face captures the pain of a teacher who makes the worst mistake of his career and has to watch its consequences tarnish the reputation of those he had hoped to help. Scenes in which he tries to hide his neighbors’ newspapers or explain his actions to his devastated mother are potent.
“Cheaters” also shows a sly sense of humor when it comes to portraying the local and national media’s frenzied coverage of the story. You know things are out of control when some of the students are courted by Connie Chung’s advance people, and scriptwriters are trying to woo the starry-eyed kids with ridiculous MOW pitches.
Tech credits are terrific. Paul Haslinger’s urban score, David Hennings’ edgy lensing and Eric Sears’ fast-and-furious editing style serve the story beautifully.