It’s the (Film) Principal of the Thing
There have been many lists made about teachers and principals in film, or just films about school movies in general. For my article this week, I thought I would take a look at three of the better film principals to grace the screen.
Why, you may ask, did I not include the guy from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, or the principal from The Breakfast Club? Because I wanted to look at principals that almost get the job right. These are the guys that are closest to real that you’re going to get. Let’s be honest: if we wanted real, we wouldn’t be watching movies. But these principals have that bit of spark in them that makes them different. We almost want to root for them (perish the thought!). If nothing else, we’ll be talking about three favourite film stars: Morgan Freeman, Robert Downey Jr. and Jim Belushi.
Ladies and Gentlemen, class is now in session. Here are some film principals to keep an eye out for the next time you hit your Netflix (or however you access movies).
If you liked Morgan Freeman before, you’re going to love him when you see him in Lean on Me. Based on the true story of Joe Clark’s time at East Side High. Joe Clark is a different kind of principal. When he is sent to East Side High to clean up the school, he gets a lot of people angry very quickly. He kicks all the “troublemakers” out of the school. He demands discipline and action from his teachers. He becomes judge, jury and executioner of the school. And despite everything stacked against him, he connects with the students in a way they haven’t ever before.
I haven’t met very many people who don’t enjoy Morgan Freeman, and if you haven’t seen this film, I highly recommend it. I feel like Freeman is at his best with just about every movie he does, playing his roles with that cool, calm class. Here, Freeman is a volcano, unwilling to let anything stop him in his quest to save a failing school. His performance is the drive that gets this film off the ground and keeps it airborne right up until the final scene.
With the rise of Robert Downey Jr. in the last few years, I felt it would be necessary to include his role as high school principal Nathan Gardner in my review. Nathan Gardner is a principal who seems to hate his job, has trouble with his daughter, and commonly looks for solutions at the bottom of a bottle. It’s no surprise, then, that he finds himself struggling against Charlie Bartlett, the self-proclaimed school psychiatrist. Also adding to their complicated relationship is the fact that Charlie is now seeing principal Gardener’s daughter. It isn’t until things come to a head that we see Nathan Gardner for who he really is, a revelation that not only makes us sympathetic but understanding.
The best example of true conflict is when both sides are essentially right. To capture this in film, you need to have two strong leads. In this way, Robert Downey Jr. does more than his fair share. Because the bulk of the film focuses on Charlie himself (as suggested by the title), it’s up to Downey Jr. to provide the subtle groundwork of his character Nathan Gardner, without detracting from the lead. While it’s a smaller role than his turns as Tony Stark or Sherlock Holmes, Downey Jr.’s portrayal of Nathan Gardner is nonetheless exceptional and is definitely worth seeing.
When making a movie about a subject that is so common to the public, you need to be careful of how you go about it. When the topic is education, everyone has an opinion. You can’t make a movie about education without somebody finding fault. But every once in a while, a movie comes along where almost everybody can find fault.
The Principal is that movie.
If you’re looking for an inspirational movie about a principal, this film is not it. While Rick Latimer has all the makings of a good principal, such as believing in his students, persistence, and a soft spot for female teachers, he falls far short of becoming a Joe Clark. That’s not to say that the film in itself is in good. But when you’ve got a principal riding a motorcycle down a hallway to defend someone who’s being attacked, then your principal becomes a little less admirable and a little more ridiculous.
The question then is, why mention him at all? The reason is because despite the ridiculousness of some scenes and character traits, Jim Belushi’s principal Rick Latimer has some notable qualities. Unlike Joe Clark who throws out the troublemaking students, Latimer is an advocate for the education of all students. He makes a point to say to the teachers that you can’t just teach the easy ones and throw the rest away. He doesn’t try to run off or pretend that everything is hunky-dory. What makes them worthwhile is his persistence to stay and fight, no matter the cost and no matter the danger. Though the construction of the film makes it far from realistic, the character of Rick Latimer would definitely be worth seeing in another setting.
So there you have it. Three film principals that just might be worth watching for something other than comic relief or to be the villain. Agree? Disagree? Fire me a comment below. 🙂
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