Based on a 1994 true story, "Cheaters" went on to become one of HBOs best-reviewed recent films made for the channel. The opening of the film makes it apparent that things will not turn out well for the kids of the Academic Decathalon team from Steinmetz High, in Chicago. Jeff Daniels stars as Jerry Plecki, a teacher who decides to lead the decathalon another year, although the students think that there's no way they're going to win over rivals Whitney Young. The school doesn't provide a lot, but the kids simply want to know the feeling of winning.
Up until this point, "Cheaters" sounds exactly like many films where a teacher inspires and believes enough in his children that they rise up and and attempt to prove themselves. That though, is when the film takes a bit of a turn. One of the students gets a hold of the test answers and the group decides that instead of getting beaten heavily year after year, they decide to use what they have against their competition, even if it does mean suffering the consequences - some very large consequences as the media circles them. The reasoning that is given and the way that the film looks as the result is certainly compelling.
director John Stockwell provides both a well-written and intelligent screenplay with excellent direction in this film that's certainly a step above most "made-for-tv" fare today. I'd say that the only fault the film has is that it doesn't quite have the time to develop the characters as completely. Still, for what details we lack about them, the actors make up for. Daniels, after a number of rather silly (although silly done very well) roles, provides an engaging and enjoyable performance. Where the role could have been sappy, Daniels is sincere in the role and very believable. Jena Malone, who plays the leader of the students, is one of the best actresses of her generation and provides a fine performance as well. Technically, the film is also superb with fantastic cinematography from David Hennings and great editing by Eric Sears (the upcoming Angelina Jolie film "Original Sin"). Pacing is excellent, as the film moves rapidly along - that's also due to performances that involve the audience.
The film was nominated for an Emmy for Best Writing in a TV film and nominated for Best Editing by the American Cinema.
VIDEO: "Cheaters", as it is a picture that was intended for television, is presented full-frame, and does provide a watchable image, although not a fantastic one. Sharpness varies a bit throughout the movie - some scenes look slightly soft while others appear reasonably sharp and detailed. Still, aside from a few bumps, the picture remains at least pleasantly consistent.
There aren't too many other problems to contend with aside from the slightly soft look occasionally. Shimmering does appear occasionally during the film, but I wasn't that distracted by it. The picture thankfully remains free of other flaws such as pixelation.
SOUND: "Cheaters" is presented in Dolby 2.0 and is a mainly dialogue-driven presentation. The score does play a role as well, and does sound quite enjoyable, as well as the popular songs that occasionally are added into the soundtrack. Dialogue remains clear and natural, easily heard. There's not a great deal to the audio presentation, but it does fine with the material.
MENUS:: The menus are basic, but at least the "test" themed backgrounds are a decent touch.
EXTRAS: Cast and crew bios.
Positive: "Cheaters" is an excellent film with especially strong acting.
Negative: HBO really did almost nothing for a fine film. Nothing in the way of features, a decent presentation. A commentary or other features such as footage about the story would have been appreciated.