Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Waiting for "Superman"

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Waiting for "Superman" on Blogcritics.

The Film
There are two films trying to coexist in Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting for “Superman”, a slickly produced documentary aiming to explore the public education crisis in this country.

On one hand, we have the stories of five kids whose parents are desperate to get their children a better education at a charter school. As the film posits over and over, without a good education, a dark future is far more likely than a bright one.

The other film is pure advocacy, with Guggenheim looking to show deficiencies in American public education and holding up charter schools (and subsequently, better teachers) as the savior that can overcome all other societal ills (broken homes, uninterested parents, the pressures of poverty). The principal villain? Powerful teachers unions that guarantee tenure to mediocre or worse teachers and ensure that schools entrenched in academic failure will stay that way.

The film’s single-minded vision is a comforting one. After all, if the solution is so simple, then maybe there is hope for the future of our schoolchildren and our country. The film has attracted support from heavy-hitters like President Obama, Oprah and Bill Gates, who appears in the film fairly often, and success stories like Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children’s Zone populate the film with examples of what education can be.

That’s all well and good, but the film’s refusal to turn a critical eye on its subject matter makes it less of a documentary and more of a promotional piece for charter schools (or conversely, a hit piece on teacher’s unions, and to a lesser extent, public school administrative officials). Guggenheim doesn’t offer a single example of a public school that is succeeding or a charter school that hasn’t met expectations. One is demonized and the other is lauded without reservation. Other than brief comments from American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, Guggenheim doesn’t interview a single person with a dissenting viewpoint.

Much like many Michael Moore films, Waiting for “Superman” is a well-made, engaging and compelling film, and all those qualities are almost enough to distract from the one-sided and misleading conclusions that the film draws. This is a film hell-bent on proving its thesis, not discovering the truth or beginning to outline solutions.

The other film that almost gets swallowed up in all of the advocacy is mostly a good one. The five stories of children and their parents’ quest to get them into a charter school tug at the heartstrings appropriately and find a natural climax in the lotteries that are held to determine whether the student will be accepted. In each case, the applicants far outnumber the open slots, and the slim odds make the whole public exercise of drawing numbers or names randomly seems rather cruel to all the eventually disappointed parents and kids. Still, it’s effective drama.

Of course, there’s the whole question of ethics in regards to the portrayal of these stories, as Guggenheim admitted in November that he falsified a scene by having one of the mothers tour the charter and express her hope even after her child had already been denied a slot. Many documentaries juggle timelines in an attempt to create a more cohesive narrative, but this blatant fakery seems to suggest that Guggenheim was too wrapped up in his good intentions of calling attention to this very real problem that he forgot to approach Waiting for “Superman” as a documentary filmmaker.

The Blu-ray Disc
Waiting for “Superman” is presented in 1080p high definition with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 (with some archival footage in 1.33:1). The film has a clean, bright look to the interview sequences and the captured footage, which is almost always lit very well. It’s not an essential high def title, but overall, this is a very pleasing presentation.

Audio is presented in a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track that easily handles the front channel dialogue and interview chatter. Christophe Beck’s score fills the mix out a little.

Special Features
Guggenheim contributes a commentary track with producer Lesley Chilcott, and he also lends his voice to an animated sequence where he talks briefly about his own experiences in school. Four deleted scenes contribute additional teacher and student stories, a mini-featurette rehashes some of the statistics mentioned in the film and John Legend explains the inspiration behind his song “Shine,” which plays over the film’s end credits. Also included are text updates on the lives of those featured in the film.

The Bottom Line
Waiting for “Superman” posits (relatively) easy answers to a problem with far more complexities and subtleties. Even without a faked scene (which raises plenty of questions on its own), the film has its share of problems.

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