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HBO presents
Cheaters (2000)

"I'm a teacher. I'm supposed to spout the same platitudes you've heard a thousand times before. 'Cheaters don't prosper.' 'It's not how you win or lose, it's how you play the game.' Well, this may not be approved curriculum, but guess what? Winning does matter. Cheaters do prosper."
- Dr. Gerald Plecki (Jeff Daniels)

Review By: Joel Cunningham   
Published: February 27, 2001

Stars: Jeff Daniels, Jena Malone
Other Stars: Blake Heron, Luke Edwards, Paul Sorvino
Director: John Stockwell

Manufacturer: WAMO
MPAA Rating: R for adult language
Run Time: 01h:45m:40s
Release Date: January 16, 2001
UPC: 026359170928
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ A-B-B+ D-

DVD Review

The old adage in America is that if you work hard, you'll succeed. We all have those iconic visions - the child born into poverty who grows to become one of the nations most powerful leaders. Take, for example, Abraham Lincoln. Or Bill Gates. George W. Bush. Oh, no, wait. The point is, America is "the land of opportunity." If you want to move up in the world, you can make it happen. After all, all people are created equal, right? Right.

Cheaters, a 2000 made-for-cable movie from HBO, has a different answer for that question: wrong, all people are not equal. In fact, some are born so disadvantaged that they might never be able to overcome their situations and constraints. Of course, this argument runs into some pretty rough political waters. Some say that those born into disadvantaged families can make something of themselves if they try. Others believe that poverty is a self-perpetuating cycle that keeps people down. Call me a cynic, but I tend to agree with the latter. How can a child living in a crime-ridden neighborhood with an underfunded school system be expected to prepare himself for college, the workforce, or the real world as well as a child in the suburbs attending a good school with teachers who are well-paid and well-supplied?

Cheaters, based on a true story, attempts to deal with this very real issue. Jeff Daniels stars as a teacher at Steinmetz High, an underfunded school populated by unmotivated kids who could care less about doing homework, let alone joining their Academic Decathlon Team, ranked last in the state. Daniels coaches the team, but it really only consists of one eager young student (Jena Malone). Malone manages to recruit the best and brightest Steinmetz has to offer, but still the team loses to a well-funded magnet school with vastly greater resources. When the test for the contest's state finals falls into a Steinmetz's student's hands, the team takes the opportunity to cheat, and they win state, shocking the city (including the team that had won the competition for the previous 10 years). The former champions ask that an investigation occur, and the Steinmetz kids experience greater and greater levels of hypocrisy in a system that expects them to fail and doesn't know how to react when they succeed.

Cheaters easily could have devolved into a simplified moral lesson about the costs of breaking the rules to succeed, a blatantly obvious message that would ignore the real issue at hand. The fact is, if the magnet school had won the state with the same scores as Steinmetz, no investigation would've occurred. The issue at the heart of the film is this disparity. Yes, it is a surprise that such a poor school could do so well. But why? Shouldn't all teams have equal opportunities in such a contest?

The acting in Cheaters is uniformly excellent. All of the young stars are excellent, and Malone deserves a special mention for her portrayal of the team's de-facto leader, the one who finally convinces them that the only way to beat the system is to cheat. Character actor Paul Sorvino also makes an impression as Steinmetz's haggard principal. The real star, however, is Daniels. He does his best work in years as the misguided teacher who tries to do the right thing for the students he has been entrusted to protect.

John Stockwell wrote and directed this film, and he received a well-deserved Emmy nomination for the screenplay. The direction is top-notch, with a gritty, realistic, almost documentary feel that incorporates video and TV footage to cement the reality of what is happening. The script never cuts corners or takes the easy way out, and there are no trite speeches or false moments. Cheating certainly isn't endorsed, but the system that causes students to use dishonesty as a last resort isn't either.

One final note: I would say that Cheaters is a film all high school students should see. Unfortunately, in their infinite wisdom, the MPAA decided that the mild expletives used by the teen cast (nothing that can't be heard in five minutes in any school hallway) is randy enough to grant the film an R rating, which in some areas bars purchase or rental by those under 17. It depresses me that a film like this is deemed too explicit for youngsters, while the offensive, lewd humor in something like The Nutty Professor 2: The Klumps passes muster.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Cheaters is presented in the 4:3 format of its original television airing. Generally, this image improves what would normally be shown through a cable box, but there are a few problems. Colors are muted, but I noted no instances of blooming or bleeding. Black level is very strong, with nice, deep blacks in the film's few darker scenes. Fine detail is a bit lacking, and there is quite a lot of edge enhancement present. At times, the "halo effect" was impossible to ignore, with even character's faces outlined with tiny, moving lines. This is only a problem in a few scenes, but it is very annoying.

Image Transfer Grade: B-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes

Audio Transfer Review: Another nice sound mix from a TV property. Dialogue is clear and understandable, and the front soundstage is used to spread out sound effects and the musical score quite nicely. During the award scenes, the surrounds kick in and provide some nice audience effects.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Animated menu
Scene Access with 16 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
Packaging: Snapper
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: While I would've really appreciated a director's commentary, all HBO has provided are brief cast bios and some fairly clever menu screens.

Extras Grade: D-


Final Comments

Cheaters could easily have come off as a preachy, contrived "after-school special." Instead, the film offers no easy answers, contains no cheap moralizing, and features an ambiguous conclusion. All involved did some excellent work, and the DVD from HBO is of good quality and relatively inexpensive, making this one well worth picking up. Very highly recommended.


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