Directed By: Arthur Hiller
Written By: W. R. McKinney
Produced By: Aaron Russo
Cast: Nick Nolte, JoBeth Williams, Ralph Macchio, Judd Hirsch, Richard Mulligan, Morgan Freeman
MPAA Rating: R
Runtime: 106 minutes
Review Date: January 14, 2011
There are plenty of reasons to watch Teachers, the least of which include: Morgan Freeman sporting a wicked Einstein-esque fro, Ralph Macchio (in his first role after The Karate Kid) as a cheeky rebel without a cause, Nick Nolte at the top of his form, and an instance in which a subpoena is served to him in probably the most hilarious way possible.
It may be marketed as a comedy, but there’s also a lot of truth here. It’s not a “sensitive but noble teacher has to shape up an unruly but talented class” movie (although that stock character is featured, with a twist) — it’s more political commentary. It’s not even really about any one teacher; it’s about the system.
The plot stems from a lawsuit wielded at JFK High School by the parents of a student who was awarded a diploma yet cannot read or write. Throughout the film, we explore all sides of this issue. From the teachers’ point of view, we see the students as savage animals; the camera turned back around, those same teachers are depicted as old, ineffectual, and lazy.
The opening scenes reveal JFK to be nothing short of a madhouse. Herds of students rampage against the school entrances, entrances blocked by padlocked fences and patrolled by armed guards. Defenseless teachers are pushed up against the wall by the senseless stampede. Among the faculty, but not present, is Alex Jurel, social studies teacher, sleeping in late following a casual Sunday night hookup. Gruffly portrayed by Nolte, Jurel is the sole voice of reason in this institution that has clearly gone to hell. Representing the plaintiff of the lawsuit in question is Lisa Hammond (JoBeth Williams), who — surprise — is a former graduate of JFK and may yet harbor a crush for her old social studies teacher. Rounding out the ensemble cast are Judd Hirsch, the knowing but powerless principal, and Ralph Macchio, an illiterate bad seed who finds a mentor in Jurel when it seems he, too, is on the verge of slipping through the cracks.
Battered and disheveled, coming apart at the seams, Jurel shows a flagrant disregard for rules and authority, and the passive wisdom of a warrior monk. He’s the “cool” teacher, popular amongst the students but not amongst the school board, who begin to fear him as a liability to their case. He has no sly agenda. He never tries to be these kids’ “friend,” maneuver his way past their defenses, or “come down to their level.” He simply treats them like adults. He knows education is not about wrestling control, and his laidback approach is shown to be the most effective. Brilliantly portrayed by Nolte, we see him really struggle with these issues.
We get the sense Jurel and Roger Rubel (Hirsch) go way back, but their ’60s political activism days are over, and all that fire has long since been extinguished by bureaucracy and the changing of the times. Their camaraderie is a compelling addition to the mix, and I would have liked to see Rubel a lot more, or at least witness an arc in his character. Unfortunately by the second half he’s relegated to one of the villain roles amongst the school board and there he remains, stuck in stone. His “needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one” refrain had me nostalgic for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
As the litigator in charge of taking depositions from the teachers, Lisa is both an antagonistic force and a love interest for Jurel. Their intentions are the same — they both want to shake up the system — only Lisa’s method will do more harm to the situation than good and Jurel is too beaten down and demoralized at this point to try anything at all. Her investigation into the incompetence of the school has become a witch-hunt, a blame game, whereas Jurel is more interested in the truth.
Teachers will give you plenty to think about as you’re watching; further reflection will reveal that it can all be collected under a fairly straightforward umbrella statement: the ineffectiveness of the education system stems from the idea that, due to the overwhelming bureaucracy and policy forced upon the teachers, students aren’t shown respect and ultimately devolve into unreachable hooligans.
There are some very deliberate creative choices at work to support the notion that this is no longer a school, it’s a warzone — the guards and fences are there to keep the students out. In perhaps the most glaring example, an exhaustive locker search and a “security measures” montage, set to “In the Jungle,” culminates in the gunning down of one student by the police.
Right on cue with the idea that “policy” is the agent of corruption, the tourist masquerading as a substitute proves to be a better teacher than the actual teachers. There are some interesting things to be said in this movie, they’re just delivered with the subtlety of a machine gun.
What I like about Teachers is that it shows the lawsuit from all angles: defense, plaintiff, and student body. Its investigation into the incompetence of the school system is nonjudgmental and thorough, recalling doc-like objectivity at times. In one of the more obvious scenes, Jurel poses the dilemma to his class; the solution director Arthur Hiller chooses to show us involves Eddie Pilikian (Macchio) shooting a candid, photographic exposé. In other scenes, we follow the characters on the “system” side of the dispute. There are good teachers at JFK, but we can see where they have fallen astray: bogged down by the senseless bureaucracy that vilifies and demonizes the student body, by even, perhaps, the parents’ apathetic, “pass the buck” mentality in the upbringing of their own children. The teachers naturally fight to keep their jobs, blinded to the real truth of what’s at stake — only Jurel, the unwelcome prophet, can see the forest for the trees. He understands that this is bigger than their jobs, it’s not about “the teachers versus the students,” “us versus them” — it’s about setting principles of education.
In reflecting on these themes, a few lines of dialogue spring immediately to mind, proof of how precise and contrived the script can be: after being peppered in his deposition, one of the teachers breaks down with his explanation for why this kid was awarded a passing grade as “Because it’s policy!” Later, following fisticuffs between Jurel and Eddie’s parents over the responsibility of his social development, Eddie’s mom retorts “That’s your job.”
Unfortunately for all of his well-intentioned commentary, Hiller makes some peculiar narrative choices about how he lays out the climax, and the last ten minutes devolve into a confusing mess of plot strings coming together all at once. The curiously placed nude scene at the very end is jarring, to say the least. I understand what Hiller was trying to do, but the effect is more titillating than it is a political statement, especially given the as-of-yet unrelieved sexual tension between Williams’ and Nolte’s characters. Adding insult to injury, the film ends with a cut to a deliberate, in-your-face marketing attempt of the soundtrack album before the credits.
Even despite this clusterfuck of an ending, Teachers managed to entertain me throughout on multiple levels. There were times where I felt especially pandered to, but mostly I found it to be a decent exploration into the flaws of the American public education system. Check this out, then go and rent Waiting for Superman for a debatably more comprehensive look.
Josh Medcalf is a freelance writer living in Chicago.