Kindergarten Cop (1990)
Written by Murray Salem, Herschel Weingrod, and Timothy Harris
Directed by Ivan Reitman
I am an elementary school teacher. Recently, I began thinking about the way my particular pocket of education is portrayed in film. You can find lots of movies about high schools and teenagers, but what does Hollywood say about the younger kids and their teachers. So, while we are trapped inside avoiding the vile corona, I will be watching about half a dozen movies that touch on elementary school, reviewing them as films and then analyzing them as a teacher. To kick things off, we have the oft memed Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Kindergarten Cop.
John Kimble (Schwarzenegger) is an LAPD detective on the trail of notorious drug kingpin Cullen Crisp. Crisp’s wife left with his young son, and the criminal is doing whatever he can to find where she went. Kimble gets Crisp locked up on a murder charge, which buys him time to track down the former Mrs. Crisp to Astoria, Oregon, where she was last seen. It’s decided that his new partner Phoebe O’Hara (Pamela Reed), will go undercover at the local elementary school to suss out which child is Crisp’s, find the mother, and get her to testify against her ex-husband in exchange for protection.
However, O’Hara gets a violent case of food poisoning, and Kimble must step in as the teacher. Needless to say, the gruff police officer clashes immediately with the kindergartners. The undercover officer is forced to merge his techniques with what works best for his students. Things take a turn for the worse when Crisp gets out and makes a b-line for Astoria. Kimble will need to defend his class, and Crisp’s ex before tragedy can strike.
I can’t say I’ve ever been the biggest fan of Ivan Reitman’s movies. I loved Ghostbusters when I was a kid, but that was about it. I was made to watch lots of his films with my family growing up, but he was never a director that I returned to as an adult. Joe Dante, Frank Oz, filmmakers like this I find inexhaustible and can watch their work over and over. Reitman’s movies feel so premise driven but without substance. I can see why he got so much work in the 80s and 90s because these high concept movies make for a good pitch and poster. I just don’t think they have the power to remain as favorites with decades behind them.
If anything, we can hold Reitman to blame for giving us the softened Schwarzenegger of the 1990s. This was followed by things like Junior and Jingle All the Way, which are painful to get through. I will always argue in defense of The Last Action Hero, though, because I think it was trying to do something interesting, maybe not ultimately succeeding. There is also a muddled tone to Kindergarten Cop, spending the first twenty minutes in a pretty dark, gritty space before shifting the Pacific Northeastern idyll of Astoria. When Crisp shows up, the movies does have a genuine menace, but it confuses its attempt to be a family film. This is all too gentle to be a film for hardcore Schwarzenegger buffs but gets way too bleak and bloody to be something to put on for the kids.
From my perspective, as a teacher, the movies get some things right, but oh so many things wrong. The difficulty in those first days and weeks and months of teaching is genuine. Even with pretty adequate training, there is a big learning curve when you are the one in charge and not a student-teacher or sub. O’Hara mentions that before she quit teaching, she was getting sick all the time, and that too is a reality. My immune system got put through the wringer during my first couple of years. There’s also added stress from the school or district you work within. I currently work in the best school I’ve had the privilege of teaching in and have been here for four years going on five. My last year in my old district was the worst I’ve ever had, working with a principal who was in over their head and allowed their school to descend into chaos. By the end of that year, I’d used all my sick days and was in the emergency with a bowel infection that had me unable to even keep water down. It was an all-time low. Thankfully, I’ve only had one sick day in the last four since moving to my current school.
One glaring error is when Kimble first arrives in the classroom. Principal Schlowski (Linda Hunt) escorts to a room of about twenty children with zero adults already there. In no way would any school ever have a classroom unattended, especially children that young. I have, however, seen multiple substitute teachers walk out of classes because the students were at an extreme level of chaos. Classroom management, as Detective Kimble learns, takes time, and I would say I was in my third year of teaching when I could confidently claim I had good classroom management, not great, though. Kimble’s military school technique, while presented as valid, would likely not be looked on so well by his administrator.
Lesson planning is never touched upon once, and Kindergarten is presented as a more organized form of daycare in the film. These days, Kindergarten teachers are expected to compose portfolios for students that exhibit evidence of growth throughout the year. When No Child Left Behind arrived on the scene, expectations for even the youngest of the students went up. Compare that to the Finnish model where kids don’t even begin learning to read until they are 7, and that country outranks the U.S. in reading and math, and you have many questions to ask. The American education system still operates under an industrial model of factory efficiency, rather than be retooled based on brain research that has come out since the early days of schooling.
We must analyze the way popular media presents teaching because, for the majority of people, this will be how they perceive education. I think it would benefit all teachers to do a deep dive into these sorts of movies so they understand the discourse going on outside of the school bubble we can so easily get trapped inside. Teaching in Kindergarten Cop is presented as an adversarial relationship, where Kimble must whip the children into shape rather than learn to understand and communicate with them. When he discovers a student is being abused by his father, it culminates in Kimble physically attacking the man and then being congratulated by the principal. That is probably one of the most unrealistic aspects of the movie, the removal of all the accountability and adherence to the law that it takes to be an educator.