Waiting for “Superman” – Review


Davis Guggenheim is the documentary film maker Michael Moore dreams he could be

One of the things every President of the United States wants to be remembered for is doing something involving education. It’s why they all refer to themselves as an “Education President,” pass bills promising to do something involving education and are always given photo opportunities involving children and classrooms. It has a delicious irony given that every single one of them sent their younger children to private schools if of the age, which is the same irony that documentary film maker Davis Guggenheim finds himself in at the start of Waiting for “Superman.”. He’s long been passionate about improving public education yet drives his children to a private school every morning. After following public school teachers earlier in his career with The First Year, he returns to the subject with a film that explores the public school systems with Waiting for “Superman.”

Guggenheim’s film has two main storylines that it follows. The first is in the broken state of the school system, interviewing several reformers as well as enough teachers’ union officials to keep it attempting to look even-handed. The other is following four children trying to get into charter schools from failing public schools, entering into lotteries for the privilege of a better education than what they would normally receive. As he progresses through the lives of the four children, he juxtaposes their struggles with the system against attempts at reform by those who have made it their life’s work.

Using crude animation, archival footage and getting a gamut of people from across the spectrum to have the candor to speak openly, he certainly keeps the film entertaining. Guggenheim has a nack with the documentary, winning an Oscar for An Inconvenient Truth and critical accolades for It Might Get Loud amongst others. He has the sort of entertaining style that Michael Moore wishes he could have and Guggenheim is the sort of documentary film maker Moore imagines himself to be. In comparison Moore is more of a second rate provocateur in comparison to Guggenheim’s ability to make both sides of an issue poignant. In this instance he gives us an insight into reform by following two people who have made it their lives work: Michelle Rhee and Geoffrey Canada.

Rhee is currently the Washington, D.C School Chancellor while Canada is CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone, dedicated to New York City’s worst areas. Starting the HCZ as a social experiment over 24 blocks, Canada has quadrupled the coverage under the goal of trying to improve the academic scores and standings of New York City’s poorest. Rhee has made waves nationwide in attempts at reforming education in the nation’s capitol, clashing with the teachers’ union and making headlines for firing teachers and administrators she deemed to be underperforming.

Both are given time and they give straight forward, uncomplicated answers to what they feel is wrong with the system (and how to correct it). It gives an insight into the debate that is hard to match, especially considering Guggenheim doesn’t bring in anyone of equal stature for an equal amount of time. We’re given snippets of speeches from Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, and enough bits of information that she’s cast into the film’s villain.

And this is the film’s main problem. For all the bluster of education reform, Guggenheim shows a relentless ability to form a cogent narrative on the subject. His main topic, right or wrong, is mainly focused no two things: a system that hasn’t been changed in 50 years and a teachers’ union doing its best to prevent change in any form. It’s in the latter where he really begins to sink his teeth into the subject and loses a lot of the objectivity he’s used so far in the film. Weingarten is closer in spirit to Auric Goldfinger than the head of a teachers’ union.

Teachers’ unions are given an intensely unpopular position and never given the ability to find equal ground. Guggenheim uses the perception of the teachers’ union caring more about their jobs (and guaranteed pay raises) than their students when one imagine it’s the opposite in most cases. He’s heavily tilted the argument towards reform while not giving the opposite side any sort of leeway. It takes from the sheer power of what Guggenheim is able to accomplish behind the camera, leaving the film behind the far better documentary on the same subject The Lottery. Waiting for “Superman” remains, then, a very good but flawed documentary.

Director: Davis Guggenheim
Notable Cast: Geoffrey Canada, Michelle Rhee