Posted: 01/27/2010



by Paul Fischer

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Director Davis Guggenheim
Screenwriter Davis Guggenheim, Billy Kimball
Executive Producer Jeff Skoll, Diane Weyermann
Producer Lesley Chilcott
Cinematographer Erich Roland, Bob Richman
Editor Greg Finton, Jay Cassidy, Kim Roberts
Music Christophe Beck
Co-producer Eliza Hindmarch

Davis Guggenheim is one of the most interesting documentary filmmakers that we have, and he brought home the environment with his highly successful An Inconvenient Truth. Now he takes on education with America’s failing education system with a provocative, nicely made but flawed film, Waiting for Superman. On the one level, the film follows a handful of promising kids through a system that he asserts inhibits, academic growth, and while we follow these kids he seeks to review the public education, where he talks about so-called “drop-out factories” and “academic sinkholes.” Waiting for Superman has many strong and positive aspects, as we see parents struggling for their kids to have a rich, educational experience amidst a sea of apathy, but we also have a film that ultimately gives audiences many fallacious propositions and never really gives a balanced perspective.

There is certainly much to be angry about when it comes to American public education, and Guggenheim is clearly angry. His film certainly succeeds in delving into a broken system, and yes, there are teachers who do not deserve to be teaching, and some heavy-handed unionisation has helped, in part, to cripple the system. Yet Waiting for Superman, that symbol of hope and optimism that Guggenheim explores, does not offer valid solutions, except to assert that charter schools are the way to go. There is a problem with subjective documentary cinema, in that as a filmmaker, Guggengheim is interested in good drama which this is, and effectively so. But in the cold light of day, one questions what there is that we don’t know. Public education is here to stay, for better or worse, and that system is full of teachers who love their job and feel they make a difference, yet they are sadly absent from this film. The reasons why this country is so far behind the result of the world has to do with political apathy and lack of funding, rather than constrictive union interference.
A film like this has the responsibility to take on all sides of a debate that will go on beyond the life of this movie, and one questions how a film like this will affect the growing disillusionment that already exists within a very fragmented profession. Of course I am biased, because while also working as a film journalist, here at Sundance reviewing movies and interviewing filmmakers and actors, I am also a teacher who works in that broken down public education system, yet i remain passionate and perennially optimistic. Perhaps I was hoping for broader optimism in a film full of hope but not quite as balanced a work as it could have been. Maybe Guggenheim will do a sequel: Superman Returns.

Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.

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