Exhilarating, heartbreaking and righteous, “Waiting for Superman” is also a kind of high-minded thriller: Can the American education system be cured? Can it be made globally competitive? Can it, at least, be made educational? A bucket of ice water in the face of politically motivated complacency, Davis Guggenheim’s epic assessment of the rise and fall of the U.S. school has been bought by Paramount and will bear the Vantage imprint. While this bodes well for theatrical nonfiction overall, it also means that those who prefer can do their crying in the dark.
What Guggenheim brings to his documentaries (which include “An Inconvenient Truth” and “It Might Get Loud”) are qualities generally not associated (wrongly) with nonfiction filmmaking: an agile, cinematic eye, a sense of rhythm and fluidity, and an awareness that unpalatable information has to be delivered with a side order of humor, not stentorian stuffiness.
The information presented here is sobering: This country spends more to incarcerate someone for four years than it would cost to educate the same inmate in private school for 12 years (and likely keep him/her out of prison). But the monetary waste caused by poor schools is just one item on the film’s agenda: The unfulfilled potential, social disintegration and generational failure — perpetuated by the hamster-wheel logic of the nation’s entrenched school bureaucracies — are mourned throughout. And it’s the arrogance of so-called educators that comes under Guggenheim’s withering moral/intellectual assault.
And yet, the film is never less than buoyant, thanks largely to the dedicated and effective teachers on whom Guggenheim focuses, and the fact that they have personalities (no coincidence). The title of the film comes from educational reformer Geoffrey Canada, of the Harlem Children’s Zone: As clips of George Reeves, as early TV’s Man of Steel, play out onscreen, Canada recalls thinking as a boy that, somehow, sometime, Superman would arrive in the South Bronx and save him. The allegory therein is that Americans maintain a fantasy about the way their schools will be changed for the better, even when it’s those very Americans who resist change whenever it puts on its red cape and tights.
A point that Canada makes so articulately is that what he and others are doing, including Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee and Pittsburgh educator Bill Strickland, proves that effective education isn’t incumbent on income or geography, but on individual attention to students and the eradication of stultifying union rules that prevent the firing of bad teachers or the institution of merit pay.
Docu makes a convincing argument on behalf of a massive rehabilitation of school administrations, but it does make something of a foaming satanic beast out of Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. The AFT is viewed a lot like the National Rifle Assn. — a group that takes a knee-jerk, hard-line approach to any proposed rule change and fights the common good to the point of absurdity. Weingarten does have an argument to be made regarding teacher tenure, which, despite all its abuses, protects teachers from being victimized politically (by creationists, for instance). The treatment of Weingarten is harsh, although in the context of the pic’s arguments, she makes an aptly shrill opponent of change.
“Waiting for Superman” has a pacing, rhythm, mix of media (animation by Awesome and Modest) and sense of human connection that keep it engaging and, at times, very, very moving. The children Guggenheim focuses on — in Los Angeles, D.C., the Bronx and Harlem — are little packages of promise, whose futures become dependent on the lotteries by which they are admitted (or not) into the charter schools that provide the only alternative to the corrupted institutions to which they are otherwise consigned. The blame for this corruption is spread all around, and the state of the schools is diagnosed as critical. But the film also addresses very possible solutions and the kinds of people who can apply them; as such, it’s a movie full of spirit and hope.
Production values, from the shooting by Erich Roland and the editing by Greg Finton, Jay Cassidy and Kim Roberts to Skip Lievsay’s sound work, deserve every superlative.