My dad was a lifelong fan of superheroes — Batman, Green Hornet, the Flash, and, yes, Superman — for his entire life. He drew pictures, collected comic books and action figures, and saw the art that was brought to life within the pages of a comic book.
He also was a teacher, someone who taught art and history for more than 30 years and a person who affected the lives of thousands of students. When he retired, three years before his death, he questioned whether he had made a difference — even though those who were in his classes knew he had.
I looked up to my father — and to my mom, whose career also was spent in classrooms — and respected his opinions, even though they differed greatly from my own at times. Today, watching the opening of “Waiting for Superman,” I wondered what he would have thought.
Davis Guggenheim’s new film has ramped up the debate about our nation’s public schools in a way that the best films do. He hitches the narrative to sympathetic, interesting characters and draws them into a sort of good vs. evil battle with the highest stakes of all — the education of our children. But in doing so, he also misses the mark.
“Superman” does not feature the staple of what makes superhero stories interesting — a great villain. By casting teachers and, more specifically, teachers unions in this film’s role, Guggenheim opts for a convenient target. (Examples of school boards and traditional administrators are shown in films made in the 1950s and ’60s — another cynical slap at traditional public schools.)
And while the brush is not quite broad enough to paint charter schools as the be-all, end-all for public education — more than 80 percent underperform their traditional counterparts, by the way — the only success stories shown in the film are charters. I know, having covered education for a number of years, that you can find many traditional public schools that are doing great jobs as well.
Guggenheim’s case is boosted by five adorable children — all with loving, sincere parents who are seeking admission to high-performing charter schools via a lottery. Innovative, charismatic reformers — Geoffrey Canada, who provides the source of the title, and Michelle Rhee, the controversial Washington, D.C., chancellor — are without question upheld as the heroes.
You can’t help but feel for these families as the lottery balls drop, and knowing the outcome in advance — I won’t spoil it for you here, but needless to say it’s not a fairy tale — makes the inevitable ending all the more heartbreaking.
As the credits roll, Guggenheim notes that, “The problem is complex but the steps are simple.” By failing to properly outline the complexities found in our public schools, he has done a disservice to viewers who are being called into action. In the end, nuance is all but lost in the interest of drama.
Make no mistake, as a drama, “Waiting for Superman” works. But the more I think about the film, I keep coming back to a problem with its central thesis. By casting unions as the central villain, and noting that some people scam the system (and ultimately, the kids) for their own self-interest, Guggenheim takes the simplest path to make his point. This uneasy mix of cynicism and naïveté, while it works in telling his story, also feels somewhat contradictory and disingenuous to someone who knows how complex schools are to operate.
I can’t help but think my father, who was no fan of unions, would have felt the same. He knew the superheroes he loved were characters from a comic book, and that real-life heroes could be found in traditional public schools every day. I just wish Guggenheim and those who are so quick to bash would look for those heroes, too.