by ALISTAIR BOMPHRAY
Remember that movie An Inconvenient Truth? It was pretty good, right? Al Gore’s triumphant return to relevance, or something like that… Well, Davis Guggenheim, the director of that cleverly developed treatise on climate change, shifts his attention to the state of public education in America in his latest feature documentary, Waiting for Superman. A few weeks back I went to the Kabuki Theater in San Francisco to retrieve a lost phone only to discover that Waiting for Superman, a surprise entry into this year’s SF International Film Festival, was starting in five minutes. I had a stack of student work burning a hole (turning to compost is probably more accurate) in my teacher bag, but who am I to refuse destiny?
Let me make this clear right away. I think this is a bad documentary. As a piece of journalism, it’s lazy and manipulative. As a “methodical dissection” of our public education system (which the film’s official movie site purports it to be), it falls far, far short. Its flaws are multiform, but for brevity’s sake, I’m going to focus on, oh, I don’t know, four:
1. Waiting for Superman is a Michael Moore rip-off, plain and simple, and this in a time when Moore’s own stuff is a little tired already. From the amusingly quaint 1950’s-era footage to the use of animation to add humor and watchability, Guggenheim borrows freely from Moore’s bag of tricks. He even includes footage of Bush saying dumb things. I mean, I like laughing at Dubya as much as the next guy, but at this point, it just seems too easy, you know? All of this stuff would’ve been fresh eight years ago, but in 2010, I couldn’t help thinking, “Haven’t I seen this before?” There’s no nice way to say this—Guggenheim’s a biter.
All in all, it is a moderately entertaining film, which should come as no surprise; Moore’s shtick works. But unlike Moore in, say, Roger & Me or Bowling for Columbine, Guggenheim sacrifices content for entertainment. It’s one thing to propel a viewer through dense, difficult subject matter; it’s quite another to do so and also shed light on the subject.
2. And that’s the problem with this film—it doesn’t really have anything new to say about education. And the things it does say are oversimplified and/or politically trendy. About halfway through, I began to have the sneaking suspicion that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called Guggenheim up and said, “Hey, remember what you did for Al? Well, I’ve got something for you.” (OMG—is Duncan the Man of Steel? He certainly is dreamy enough.). Personally, I have a hard time trusting a documentary that so unwaveringly cleaves to one party’s line, even if that line is occasionally my own.
One of the film’s major theses is that teacher unions are getting in the way of educational reform. To anyone even peripherally acquainted with the current educational zeitgeist, this is not a new sentiment. And with good reason—though their intent is to protect teachers, teacher unions too often simply protect the status quo. This includes keeping bad teachers in a job. Guggenheim points to oft-touted examples of bureaucratic excess such as New York City’s “Rubber Room” where suspended teachers receive full salary and benefits to do nothing (a story already covered by, most notably, The New Yorker and This American Life).
Unfortunately, Guggenheim’s view on this debate is as free from nuance as a DC comic book. Enter Michelle Rhee, the chancellor of D.C. schools, as the caped union buster. And over there, feasting on the wormy corpses of our children’s dreams, is Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, as Lex Luthor. Rather than provide useful historical context or explore the philosophical gap between these two opposing figures, Guggenheim is content to paint the issue in broad strokes. Yes, of course, the Rubber Room is straight out of Catch 22, and, yes, of course, there are bad teachers out there (we’ve all had them), but, c’mon, what about all of the average to amazing teachers who are doing their job? Instead, Guggenheim focuses on a minority—the woefully inept, cruelly indifferent, really, really, bad teacher.