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Dangerous Minds

Review by Carrie Gorringe


Directed by John N. Smith.

Starring Michelle Pfeiffer,
George Dzunza

Dangerous Minds, according to the press release sitting on my desk, "is a provocative and exciting new drama about the battles that are waged and lost every day in America's classrooms and the fight to combat despair and defeat." The film is loosely based upon LouAnne Johnson's experiences as a former Marine-turned-teacher-of-the-disadvantaged as recounted in the book, My Posse Don't Do Homework. As it turns out, that Marine Corps training comes in handy, as we witness Ms. Johnson's gradual attempts to formulate safe zones, beginning with her own physical safety (her karate skills are helpful here), and expanding to encompass her students' minds and their lives. She attempts to rescue them, first from their own ignorance, then from the ignorance of an educational bureaucracy which understands the concept of warehousing what it believes to be the academically inept but has an extreme reluctance to innovate, and finally from the alienation of the very hostile world of the inner cities.

At least, this is how the film should have played, but it falls critically short of the mark, for reasons that will become apparent. In all fairness, the film succeeds in conveying some of the problematic aspects of education reform. How, for example, can a teacher honestly expect his/her students to adopt middle-class values of delayed gratification in the pursuit of knowledge when their post-school lives are literally spent in a milieu akin to wartime behavior, consisting mainly of a live-by-your-wits paranoia which advocates living for today in case you die tomorrow? Unfortunately, the film doesn't spend that much time upon this central problem, using it instead as an excuse to emphasize the individual heroics of Ms. Johnson. While her conduct was commendable beyond any doubt, Ms. Johnson herself would be the first to say that the solution to the education problem (as the film seems to suggest) is not simply to staff the teaching profession with ex-Marines who would be happy to impart their expertise and self-discipline for a salary of $24,700 per year (this fact alone begs the question of how the cinematic Ms. Johnson, a divorcée who lives in a rundown house, can afford to give gifts of leather jackets and expensive dinners to her students as educational incentives on such a salary). Instead of asking why such people don't offer these qualities to the school board of their choice, one might well ask: why should they, or anyone else, sell such precious (because rare) commodities so cheaply in a society driven less by altruism than by market forces? Further to the point, can and should education be driven by market forces? In fact, Ms. Johnson has answered those latter questions very much in the negative; her success, as she has been quick to indicate in her books and personal appearances (if not on the screen), was very much due to generous government grants. This is not to suggest that the educational problem in the U.S. inner cities can be solved merely by throwing more money at the problem, but, if Ms. Johnson's example is any indication, it surely cannot be solved by the fiscal equivalent of cynicism disguised as "tough love". From the attitude of the film, however, anyone would be forgiven for assuming otherwise.

Moreover, any attempt (and there isn't much) to address these issues becomes obscured by several defects within the film, not least of all by the fact that the characters are drawn as one-dimensional figures. According to Ms. Johnson, who spoke after the screening I attended, many of the characters in the film are "composites," created from compressing two or more real-life figures into one. Granted, this construction allows the scriptwriter a choice of more exciting incidents than would be available in the life of one individual, but it also squeezes the richness out of those lives utilized in the process. This character construction shouldn't be surprising, since the film was produced by Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, names which should be familiar to anyone who has seen Top Gun or Days of Thunder, -- films that are not renowned for their emphasis upon the construction of multifaceted characters. In fact, Dangerous Minds, for all of the seriousness of the issues it attempts to address, actually bears an uncanny resemblance to Top Gun. As anyone who has sat through one of Simpson and Bruckheimer's films knows all too well, they are all constructed in the same way: scenes of violence are interspersed with scenes of the hero or heroine, beautifully lit, as he/she is involved in a solitary struggle to conquer not only his/her own demons, but the demons of those around them. All of the above, of course, is covered with a thick impasto of bombast strong enough to deprive the narrative of air without actually killing it. (Pfeiffer's rendition of LouAnne Johnson bears all the hallmarks of this mixture of externally-manifested angst and cheesecake. In one scene, she lies in bed, languorous sensuality at the forefront, earnestly contemplating the future of a troubled student while clad only in a Levi's shirt; the effect is not unlike Victoria's Secret meets Mother Teresa, but more pleasing visually). Under the circumstances one can hardly discuss the concept of a unique directorial voice; put a relative unknown like Smith (a Canadian director who made the acclaimed TV-film, The Boys of St. Vincent's) and/or Tony Scott at the helm of a Simpson/Bruckheimer film and the results can be depressing, because so similar.

Despite the monotonous tendentiousness so prevalent in a Simspon/Bruckheimer film, it should nevertheless be said that sometimes this balancing act between narrative life and death can be entertaining, such as in the case of Crimson Tide; in the case of Dangerous Minds, however, it is simply too oversimplified and therefore ridiculous. It's obvious that the boys work better with military hardware, probably because the bombast just slides right off the coating of those F-18 fighters or nuclear subs, or maybe civilians just have an endemic belief in military types as being, well, somewhat more unbalanced than the rest -- call it the Dr. Strangelove Syndrome. After hearing Ms. Johnson speak about her life and writings, and determining for myself the amount of detail lost in the translation from book to screen, the result seemed somewhat less than expected. Nevertheless, the performances are surprisingly good, given the quality of the script that the actors had to work with (visibly uncomfortable in early scenes, Pfeiffer grows into her role nicely as the film progresses). Ms. Johnson's verdict on the film was that it wasn't bad -- for a Hollywood production. She should have traced her discontent to a more specific source, or, one should say, more specific sources.

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