Holding Out for a Hero

4 Oct

Judging by its title, you might think Waiting for “Superman” is either the latest superhero movie or an absurdist play by Samuel Beckett about what it means to be Clark Kent. The truth is neither of those. In fact, “Superman” is a documentary by Davis Guggenheim (who also made the Oscar-winning Al Gore documentary An Inconvenient Truth) about the problems with the educational system in America today, and how a combination of unions, unproductive politicians, ineffective teachers, uninvolved parents, and short-sighted administrators are derailing the hopes and dreams of our youth, as well as the future of the country. The film’s thesis is that every child deserves a solid public-school education, but right now that’s far from what they’re getting.

In the film, Guggenheim uses the stories of a half-dozen children (and their parents) in various cities and the insights of some thought leaders in the educational world (including Geoffrey Canada, who is the closest thing this film has to an actual superhero) to illustrate what’s wrong with the schools in America: they’re overcrowded, not enough teachers are doing a good job, the teachers are represented by a strong union that won’t let even the worst educators be fired, and those children who do want to go to a better school are hampered by either financial limitations or a system that selects students by lottery. Presidents on both sides have pledged to be strong on educational reform, but none have accomplished much in this area. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The film builds to a climactic scene where the children all wait (in their various cities) to hear their name called in a lottery — which will mean they’ve been selected to go to a better school, and their dreams of going to college, of being doctors or whatever they want, are more realistic. To say the scene is tense and ultimately heartbreaking is putting it mildly.

But of course it is. While there’s no doubt that what we’re seeing is real, Guggenheim has engineered things to increase the drama quotient. He’s featured likable kids with supportive families, and he’s used heart-tugging music and extreme close-ups to make the lottery results even more emotional. At the film’s end, when you’re disheartened and wanting to do something about the situation, the best the film can do (during the closing credits) is direct you to its website, WaitingForSuperman.com, where you’ll find more information. I was hoping the film itself would have a stronger call to action than that, and might feature what some non-administrators have done on a grassroots level.

The reality, of course, is that this is a complex problem with no easy solution. Referring back to the film’s title, anyone expecting a “Superman” to swoop down and solve things will surely be disappointed. Though the film makes this clear and doesn’t present many answers, “Superman” does make a strong case that something needs to be done — and soon. The film (and its marketing campaign) believes the problems with our educational system are everyone’s problems, not just those with children in the system. And that’s why “Superman” is a film that needs to be seen by anyone who cares about education, children, or our nation’s future. I’m giving it a B+.

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