Freedom Writers (7/10)
by Tony Medley
Last year I wrote a favorable
review of “Gridiron Gang,” which was about Sean Porter, a real life
person. After my review appeared, I received an email from a friend
whose opinion I respect. He said he knew and worked with Sean Porter and
in his opinion, Porter wasn’t anywhere close to the secular saint the
movie painted him. Since my review was already out there, I didn’t
change it, but it raised an issue.
Before I viewed “Freedom
Writers,” I received an email from someone whose opinion I respect
telling me that Erin Gruwell (Hillary Swank) wasn’t anything at all like
the saintly woman painted in the picture. He said he had personal
experiences with her on a regular basis during the time covered in the
movie, along with some experience with her students. His opinion of her
was much less than favorable. Among the many faults he perceived, he
said that she told him flatly that she hated men.
And it’s not just my friend
who has a contrary view of the film. Apparently facts have been
seriously reworked for dramatic effect, and many in Long Beach are not
happy with what they perceive to be a slight on their city and high
Here is the issue raised
again. When a movie distorts history and I am absolutely certain of it,
like Clint Eastwood’s revisionist WWII drama, “Letters from Iwo Jima,” I
emphasize the distortion. In both of these instances, however, I don’t
have any personal knowledge of the people portrayed. Even if I did, the
question is, does a movie have the right to stand on its own, even if it
is a perversion of fact? As to “Letters From Iwo Jima,” my opinion was
that it was such a distortion of fact that it did not have the right to
stand on its own.
As to “Freedom Writers,” I am
of a different view. This is a “Blackboard Jungle” (1955) type of story
where Gruwell is a novice teacher in a troubled school (Long Beach’s
Wilson High School), overrun by gangbangers who have no respect for
authority. She comes up with a unique way to get to these students,
successfully, in spite of opposition from the department head for whom
she works, Margaret Campbell (Imelda Staunton), and at least one fellow
Even if it is a distortion of
fact and even if Gruwell isn’t the wonderful person the movie portrays,
if one views the film as fiction the acting is so good by the entire
cast that it is an enjoyable experience. The script is so poignant that
eyes were tearing up throughout the film, well-directed by Richard
LaGrevense, who also wrote the script.
But that’s not to say that
the movie doesn’t have its flaws. It adopts Gruwell’s apparent disdain
for men. The two main male characters in the film are clearly heavies.
Gruwell’s husband, Steve (Scott Glenn), is shown as highly
unsympathetic. However, if one looks at his situation with an unbiased
eye, she basically abandons him and her marriage and he, quite
naturally, doesn’t like it. She is rarely home; she pays little or no
attention to him; she basically divorces herself from him and their
marriage, sacrificing them for her job and the children she is teaching.
Anybody would rebel at that. In a normal world, the spouse who neglects
the other spouse to devote time to a job is the one who is the person
who abandons the marriage. An honest movie would have shown how
Gruwell’s addiction to her job destroyed her marriage. An honest movie
would have shown how Gruwell’s devotion to her job helped her students
but would pin the destruction of her marriage squarely on her shoulders.
An honest movie would have raised the issue of which is more important,
marriage or job? But not this movie. This movie manipulates the
situation in such a clever manner that it paints Steve as an
unreasonable bad guy who, in leaving her, is shown as abandoning her.
The other main male character
is honors instructor Brian Gelford (John Benjamin Hickey), who is honest
with her, but is shown as being selfish and uncooperative when an honors
student wants to transfer from his class to Gruwell’s. In one of the
climactic scenes in the movie, Gruwell lobbies to continue to teach her
students in their junior and senior years (she is a teacher for freshmen
and sophomores only). Gelford is shown as being unsympathetic and
uncooperative in opposing this move. The movie’s treatment of men in the
way it presents these two main male characters clearly follows the
misandristic attitude attributed to Gruwell by my friend.
As to the issue between
Gruwell and Gelford, whether she should be allowed to continue teaching
them as juniors and seniors, my feeling was that Gruwell had done her
job in showing her gangbanger students that there was something more to
life than anger and violence and that they should be cut loose to learn
how to live and survive without her. My feeling was that the correct
move would be to make them move into another teacher’s classroom because
Gruwell was not going to be there to hold their collective hands for the
rest of their lives. But, alas, this is not to be in this Hollywood view
of the world.
But, in the end, this movie
can stand on its own. It is well-acted, -written, and -directed, if you
just look at it as an amusement. I divorced what I had been told about
the facts and simply enjoyed an emotional, moving story, ignoring its
bias (in today’s Hollywood, if you don’t often ignore a movie’s bias,
you won’t often be able to enjoy a Hollywood movie). You don’t have to
believe “The Wizard of Oz” to accept it as an enjoyable entertainment.