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Film: A Mighty Wurlitzer

by Ross Douthat

A review of Waiting for ‘Superman’

There are few genres I find as wearying as the political documentary. This is true even when they’re competently done: The more skillfully the film makes its points, hails its heroes, and skewers its villains, the more I tend to sit squirming in my seat, resisting the urge to hurl rejoinders at the screen, and muttering over and over again under my breath: “It’s more complicated than that . . .”

In part, I’m usually just allergic to the political point that’s being made: In the world of documentary filmmaking, after all, the ideological spectrum runs from Al Gore on the right to Noam Chomsky on the left, with Michael Moore’s girth bestriding most of the territory in between. (And the less said about the occasional right-wing “answers” to Moore’s efforts, the better.)

But after watching Davis Guggenheim’s much-lauded Waiting for ‘Superman, I’m beginning to suspect that my problem with the political documentary isn’t just ideological. Here, for once, is a piece of docu-agitprop that I actually agree with: a heart-tugging, blood-boiling brief against America’s educational bureaucracy, with teachers’ unions playing the heavy and school choice held up as a panacea. And it still annoyed the heck out of me.

Guggenheim’s personal story has a classic neoconservative trajectory. He’s a conventional Hollywood liberal (and the husband of Elisabeth Shue, as it happens) who directed both Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and Barack Obama’s biographical film for the 2008 Democratic convention, and who apparently never considered that government failures might be even worse than market failures until the time came to put his kids in school. Early in his career, Guggenheim made a documentary about the heroism of first-year public-school teachers. But ten years later (as he tells it, in the movie’s overture), he drives past one . . . two . . . three public schools every day, on the way to the private school where his own children are enrolled.

The movie that he’s spun out of this mugged-by-reality realization follows five children, four urban (from L.A., Harlem, the Bronx, and Washington, D.C.) and one suburban (from Redwood City, Calif.), in their quest to win a place in a charter school and escape the mediocrity or outright failure of their local public institution. It has real heroes: the kids themselves, their dedicated parents, and such figures as Michelle Rhee, D.C.’s reforming school superintendent, and Geoffrey Canada, the indefatigable founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone. It has a sour-faced villain, in the form of Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers. It has disquisitions on public policy, helped along by animation, in which we learn just how hard it is to fire a poor-performing teacher. And it has a suitably wrenching conclusion: the public lotteries that determine admission to the charter schools, in which parents and children gather in auditoriums and gymnasiums to watch as the tumbling of colored balls determines their fates for the next year, and for years and years to come.

I bought Guggenheim’s premise (our schools are broken, and the bureaucracy’s to blame). I bought his solution (more charter schools, more merit pay for teachers, and a teachers’ union that doesn’t prevent lousy instructors from being sacked). I definitely bought the personal drama: It would take a heart of stone to watch these families being let down by America’s public institutions without feeling for their plight.

Yet sitting there in the theater, I kept resisting the film, picking out its overgeneralizations, noting its elisions and evasions, letting its crusading spirit irritate me instead of being uplifted by it. I tried to imagine how a smart left-winger would critique the movie — by focusing on issues of race and segregation and “white flight,” probably, which the movie tap-dances away from at every opportunity. I wondered what a conservative sociologist might say about the movie’s insistence that schools and schools alone can make so great a difference — as though family breakdown and single parenthood, which scar the lives of many of the movie’s children, don’t play a greater role in keeping the underclass where it is. And I scoffed at Guggenheim’s Pollyannish suggestion that with the right schools and the right teachers, socioeconomic differences could all but melt away.

Don’t get me wrong: This is a good movie (if perhaps a bit too sprawling, covering too many families, cities, and bureaucracies in too little time), made with noble purpose, in the service of an essentially righteous cause. And given that I spend my career in the world of opinion journalism, I’m hardly in a position to criticize somebody for being polemical, and for giving short shrift to caveats and countervailing arguments.

But there’s still something about a political documentary that feels different from the written word — more claustrophobic, more one-sided, more oppressively unfair. A written argument you can put down, set aside, click away from; whether on the Internet or in a library, a countervailing view is never far away. But in the dark of a theater the film becomes the world entire, and throughout the running time, at least, the director controls the contours of debate completely. It’s a particular kind of intellectual tyranny, however well-intentioned — and even when I admire its message and execution, I don’t think I’ll ever learn to like it.

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