Waiting for Superman (US - BD)
Gabe inspects one possible option for saving America's education system...
It continues to be massively difficult to review this brand of documentary, mostly because of the ‘preaching to the choir’ syndrome that so prevalently defines my personal experiences. Waiting for Superman is an extraordinary version of this problem, as my personal politics and spiritual beliefs aren’t even the issue. Both of my parents are teachers, as were two of my grandparents, and my stepmother. Education and its tragic state has been a consistent part of daily conversation my entire life. I know and have developed opinions on almost everything covered here (except the clear distinctions between States, which is admittedly important). Director Davis Guggenheim, the man that helped Al Gore bring Inconvenient Truth to the big screen, and all the participants in this documentary are very plainly preaching to the choir. More upsetting, but not at all unexpected, is the lack of answers to the problems. I seriously doubt any American in their right mind would argue that our education system isn’t falling apart, but the discussion almost always comes down to finger pointing, and the educators themselves often find themselves under the majority of blame (which obviously doesn’t go over very well in the Powers household). I have a horse in this race, and can’t look at the film objectively. It’s an incredibly complex issue teeming with Catch 22s, and one documentary can’t even start to encapsulate the problem.
Guggenheim is good at telling the story of failure, and as a study of the problem itself Waiting for Superman is reasonably successful. Those that don’t already know this horrible story (i.e.: the people outside of the choir) are going to learn the basics, and don’t even need to keep track of a whole lot of facts and figures thanks to some delightful animated sequences that simplify the math down to easy graphs and visual metaphors. The most telling and convincing moments include a montage of every president since Johnson discussing their plans for education (none of which were ever really delivered upon), the comparison between the cost of jail versus the cost of private schooling, the all too common irrelevance of teacher tenure, the surprising lack in difference between urban and suburban public schools (an especially important lesson), and the ridiculous, callous nature of setting up lotteries for spots in the best schools (definitely the most heartbreaking sequence in the entire film).
But the most important lesson Guggenheim offers is a discussion of the duality of supporting good teachers and dealing with bad teachers. Unfortunately the solutions presented (and not a lot of solutions are presented) revolve around dumping the bad teachers, and replacing the schools, which only solves half the problem, and doesn’t do much for recruiting new, better teachers. The idea of rewarding good teachers monetarily is floated, but the fact that teachers on the whole don’t really make any money anyway is barely hinted at (oddly enough, Guggenheim seems to think he has covered these facts, according to the commentary track). Why would anyone want to be a teacher at all in this landscape? The lack of the educators’ point of view hurts the entire doc. The parent’s and children’s point of view is important, arguably even more important, but I see little means for those under-educated on these problems to understand the other half of the equation, beyond a brief segue mentioning how difficult the job is. Of course, this would make for an extremely long feature, but sometimes that’s what a documentary requires. Lake of Fire, Tony Kaye’s epic, 152 minute meditation on the abortion issue, proves that covering every nook and cranny of an issue sometimes makes for a better final product.
Guggenheim isn’t a Michael Moore clone, and besides his impassive narration he doesn’t personally involve himself with the narrative. But he’s not approaching this subject from a satisfactorily objective point of view (it’s impossible for a documentary to be entirely objective, of course, as choices have to made in editing ultimately make up a cinematic point of view). On the other hand, he’s wise enough to show the stark reality of the problem from the ground level without allowing the tone trip into utter despair. The stories are sad, and the prospects are bleak, but the children themselves almost always manage to transcend, and shine above their situations which offer the audience a real sense of hope. Still, the real hope offered in the end revolves around a specialized recent achievement, and he flat out dumps his doubts on the other side of the Charter School discussion. The success is exciting and full of bluster (you’ve probably seen commercials and news items about Geoffrey Canada already, and it’s hard to resist the happy side of the situation), but the tragedy of Michelle Rhee’s failures burn too deeply to smile when the film is over.
I don’t usually expect a lot from documentaries on Blu-ray. The genre is built around grabbing footage on the fly with the cheapest and lightest cameras available. The digital age has changed things, and Waiting for Superman, along with plenty of other recent documentaries, is shot on HD video, ensuring that even this stolen shots are crisp and lifelike. This is a particularly effortless film in terms of lighting schemes. Cinematographers Erich Roland and Bob Richman pretty much work directly from source light, even during the staged interviews. This creates an authentic look, and the quality of the cameras used keeps the image sharp, even in low lighting. There is some minor digital noise, and the hues aren’t as vibrant as productions with bigger production values, but there’s very little to complain about. Blacks are deep, contrast levels are effective, and things look generally clean. There is, of course, also stock footage, and older, non-HD footage, and these don’t look spectacular, but the difference in style is part of the point.
Again, I don’t expect a lot from documentaries in terms of audio presentation, so this adequate DTS-HD Master Audio track is more than enough to satisfy. The bulk of the aural focus is on the interviews, which are clean and clear, though occasionally inconsistent in general volume levels from person to person. The stereo and surround channels feature some ambient noises during the school tours and outdoor walks, but mostly these are devoted to the musical soundtrack. The source music disappears into the background too often, but Christophe Beck’s score usually settles nicely into the right and left channel, with a decent share of LFE enhancement.
The back of the box paints a pretty bleak extras picture, but the main menu reveals something more. Things begin with a commentary track featuring director Davis Guggenheim and producer Lesley Chilcott. Guggenheim admits early on that he wanted to produce a documentary with a strong point of view and opinion, and Chilcott quickly discusses the difficulty of covering such a broad subject in an average running time, which is nice. We are allowed behind the curtain, but overall this track is slow moving, and rather than commentating on the process, or discussing the making-of process, Guggenheim is so passionate about the subject he basically preaches over the already obvious doctrine. Chilcott talks much less, but generally covers a lot of the bases left uncovered during the doc, such as the need for great teachers, so she gets an A for effort. Generally speaking, there are too many unnecessary comparisons made to An Inconvenient Truth, a generally ostentatious tone, and too many claims that even though something isn’t stated during the film, the ideas still permeate (they rarely do). The best part is when the participants defensively state up and down that they support unions, even though they depict the teacher’s union as a villain in their film (they compare it to the director’s guild, which is frankly almost as oppressive and broken).
‘Changing the Odds’ (5:30, HD) is a sort of inspirational commercial for New York’s School of One program. Frankly it’s kind of offensive given the film’s subject matter, but if I really think about it, it’s no more offensive than Disney sticking ads for their amusement parks on their DVDs and Blu-rays. More inspirational ads follow. ‘A Conversation with Director Davis Guggenheim’ (1:40, HD) is a brief animated piece that calls for great teachers (seriously, where was this during the documentary?), and ‘The Future is in Our Classrooms (2:10, HD) follows suit with a fantastic graphic design piece that pretty much covers the gist of the issue. These are followed by a text based series of updates to the documentary’s subject matter, and a link to the film’s website, and four deleted scenes (31:10, HD). The last extra is ‘The Making of Shine’ (7:00, HD), a (staged) behind the scenes look at musician John Legend’s schooling.
Waiting for Superman is a well made documentary, and it acts as a nice set of Cliff’s Notes on America’s broken education system, but it’s thin, and pushes an agenda on its audience. Charter schools may be the answer in the short run, but the problems with this system (the fact that charter schools are often run like businesses, that they fail on a similar level to public schools, or that they have a lot in common with the apparently failing magnet program) are barely hinted at. It’s important to have options, but I’d like to think that it’s just as important to paint as full a portrait of a situation as possible. This disc’s extras also reveal that the problems evolve so quickly that a single movie can’t remain relevant even if it tries to cover every possible corner of an issue. See it and decide for yourself. Those that make a blind purchase will at least find a gift card in their Blu-ray that will make it possible to donate $25 to a public school of their choice.
*Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray's image quality.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Some material may not be suitable for children
Release Date: 15th February 2011
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 Spanish
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese
Extras: Director and Producer Commentary, Changing the Odds, A Conversation with Director Davis Guggenheim, The Future is in Our Classrooms, Updates, Deleted Scenes, The Making of Shine, Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: David Guggenheim
Cast: Geoffrey Canada, Michelle Rhee
Length: 111 minutes
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