In the United States, the subject of education is a massive yet elusive beast. It affects all of us, in ways direct and otherwise, and is woven deeply into our societal and cultural fabric. It looms over life in America, yet is so complex and ambiguous as to be a mystery in our daily midst. Bingo: an ideal point of focus for a smart and probing documentary filmmaker. Just as director Davis Guggenheim effectively gored us with frightening data and potential for environmental darkness in the global warming warning, An Inconvenient Truth, he moves skillfully into the area of the state of education in America with Waiting for Superman, a fascinating and poignant examination of broken social machinery.
Of course, the subject of education is so massive that it could easily be a PBS series, 10 times longer than this multiplex-friendly length film. But Guggenheim treats Superman as a condensed packet of data for mass consumption, kept lively through animation bits and a narrative structure that sympathetically follows several young children’s efforts to upgrade their schools, in different cities and socio-economic neighborhoods.
We learn, in real terms, about the radical inequities of public schools, and the pie-in-the-sky goals of “no child left behind,” when basic proficiency in math and reading at eighth grade goes as low as 12 percent in our nation’s capitol. We learn that money spent on prisoners exceeds the expense of private school. Rays of hope for change—if not Supermanly cures—are supplied by visionary reformers and observers, including Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, Geoffrey Canada, and other bright classroom advocates. Most soberingly, and also controversially, Guggenheim takes aim at the harmful results of powerful teachers’ unions, which protect bad teachers from termination and keep them in the classroom.
Both of Guggenheim’s high-profile documentaries are deftly made and fine examples of big screen-worthy “edutainment” in areas concerning all of us. These are real-world horror films that need to be seen, and are compelling and accessibly told filmic tales. Though entertaining along the way, they defy our ability to shrug them off as “only a movie.” That’s true reality programming, with potential for change-making.