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Waiting for "Superman" DVD Review

Waiting for "Superman" movie poster Waiting for "Superman"

Theatrical Release: September 24, 2010 / Running Time: 111 Minutes / Rating: PG / Songs List

Director/Narrator: Davis Guggenheim / Writers: Davis Guggenheim, Billy Kimball

Interview Subjects: The Garcia-Regalado Family (Maria and Francisco), The Jones Family (Emily), The Esparza Family (Jose, Judith, and Daisy), The Black & McGee Family (Anthony and Gloria), The Whitfield & Hill Family (Nakia and Bianca), The Ordon Family, The Leanse Family, The Guy Family, The Martinez & Gonzalez Family, The Lewis Family, The Zell Family, Charles Adams, Jonathan Alter, Steve Barr, Ms. Celeste Bell, Geoffrey Canada, Todd Dickson, Howard Fuller, Lester Garcia, Bill Gates, Eric Hanushek, Lance T. Izumi, Jason Kamras, Jay Mathews, Michelle Rhee, Bill Strickland, Randi Weingarten

Tagline: The fate of our country won't be determined on a battlefield, it will be determined in a classroom.

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Officially, the title Waiting for "Superman" puts its direct object in both quotes and italics, presumably to avoid mistaken expectations. This documentary about America's public education system could not be much further from the next reboot afforded DC Comics' Man of Steel.

It is the newest film from Davis Guggenheim, a director who has gravitated to feature documentaries
after years of working in primetime TV dramas. Guggenheim's 2006 "global warning" film An Inconvenient Truth attracted as much attention as nearly any theatrical documentary before it and earned him an Academy Award. By comparison, Waiting has garnered far less notice, but it still became 2010's third highest-grossing and widest-distributed documentary, as well as one of the year's most acclaimed films and most surprising Oscar snubs.

Waiting tackles the education issue, a supposed high priority for every U.S. president of the last fifty years (as speech clips show), from several different angles. It profiles a number of urban elementary school students whose parents and guardians want the best for them, which in many cases may be more than their local public school can provide.

Seen here doing her homework, Daisy Esparza is one of five elementary school students whose search for a better education is documented in "Waiting for 'Superman'." This animated graphic displays how much more common it is to lose a medical or law license than a teaching one.

The movie explores the source of that concern, the system which finds statewide reading and math proficiency levels looming around 30% across the nation over eight years after President George W. Bush and Senator Ted Kennedy signed the ambitious, bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act into law. Statistics demonstrate that the system is failing and Guggenheim tries to understand why (and, by extension, why he drives past three public schools to take his son to a private school). One of his most likely culprits is bad teachers, some of whom can cover just one-third of the material that a more effective colleague is covering at the same cost. A merit-based pay scale is posed as a solution, one which could motivate instructors who are quickly (and dangerously, it seems) given bulletproof tenure.

Such a reform is championed by the film's apparent heroine, Michelle Rhee, the chancellor of Washington D.C.'s public schools. Holding no career aspirations, Rhee has nothing to lose as she proposes sweeping change to repair some of the nation's lowest-performing districts. With action to back up her talk, Rhee swiftly closes two dozen schools, drawing local wrath. Her plan to overhaul the tenure standards in place gets condemned by the seeming villain of the picture, the powerful teachers unions.

Guggenheim dedicates much time to the crippling bureaucracy enforced by the unions, which make it almost impossible to fire teachers not pulling their weight and which in New York City finds teachers accused of misconduct continuing to collect their salaries killing time in reassignment centers (the infamous "rubber rooms") while awaiting review of their cases.

The film finds dramatic visuals, an invaluable and often challenging part of any documentary, for its conclusion, as the profiled families attend public lotteries where they hope to beat the long odds of getting into a high-performing charter school whose applicants may outnumber its vacancies by more than ten times. It provides some closure (or more often, not) for the chosen case studies and also underscores how scattershot this documentary is and has to be in addressing an issue so broad and layered.

Education reformer Geoffrey Canada, one of the film's authoritative subjects, is interviewed in front of a map of the area where he has brought progress as president and CEO of the Harlem Children's Zone. Jack Black's unenthused "School of Rock" substitution offers an amusing way of depicting subpar teaching.

Ultimately, what is Waiting for "Superman" saying? That most parents want their kids to be educated, that most public schools could be doing a better job, and that most reform attempts are futile on account of immovable unions and other considerations. All appear to be interesting and valid points, made passionately and convincingly.
Still, the documentary does feel a bit tidy and selective in its arguments. Standardized test scores in this nation pale in comparison to many of the world's countries, but appear to remain flat. The gap between scholastic achievement of those living beneath the poverty line and those living above it seems impossible to narrow. And does some hidden backpack footage of bad teachers in the early '90s really indicate an outbreak of tenured malaise?

I don't have the answers or even much more information than what this film has given me. You don't have to be in politics to recognize that the education of our nation's children is one of the most important issues out there. While wandering and overwhelmed by the breadth of its subject, Guggenheim's documentary raises valuable points and about as effectively as it can with two hours of your attention.

That last area is obviously the one I'm most qualified and inclined to discuss. Those who found the information of the director's Al Gore movie good but its presentation dull should be pleased to see that the two facets are on an even playing field here. Freed of Gore's wooden nature and Powerpoint design, Guggenheim loosens up and gives Waiting entertainment value to complement its discourse. Seemingly inspired by two of the few modern documentarians you and I know by name, Michael Moore and Super Size Me's Morgan Spurlock, Guggenheim opts for a buoyant tone, with a palpable sense of humor.

The movie excels in one regard where many documentaries falter: visual variety. It benefits from a wide range of sources, from government meetings and news reports to old educational shorts and original animation. It's not above emphasizing points with excerpts of familiar TV properties, from "The Simpsons" to "Welcome Back, Kotter." While some might see that as trivializing a serious issue, I couldn't disagree more. Guggenheim's messages and questions get louder with every new person he can reach. Entertainment is one of the reigning forces of the 21st century; consider the very nature of newscasts and the frivolity and whiz-bang that is essential to them. The director could have easily gone badly wrong here, and though I was sad not to get glimpses of Dangerous Minds or Hamlet 2, I'm shuddering at the thought of having to hear Alice Cooper's "School's Out" punctuate a point about lengthening school hours. My point is Waiting could have gone further in simply trying to entertain the masses. As is, though, it is not merely illuminating but also enjoyable to watch. And that is coming from someone who feels that too many people (out of the medium's limited audience, that is) give documentaries a pass cinematically simply because they're unable to authoritatively contend or dispute inevitably biased reporting.

Waiting for Superman DVD cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com DVD Details

1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, Spanish)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, Spanish, French
Closed Captioned; Extras Captioned and Subtitled
Release Date: February 15, 2011
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $29.99
Black Eco-Friendly Keepcase
Also available on Blu-ray Disc ($39.99 SRP)

VIDEO and AUDIO

There are no video/audio complaints to lob at Waiting. The picture quality varies based on the source; for instance, a "Happy Days" clip look atrocious and the old short films are beat-up. All the original footage, however, excels, boasting the clarity and sharpness you'd expect from a 21st century documentary. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack also serves the film well. Like Moore and Spurlock, Guggenheim livens up the picture with some fitting and recognizable needle drops, such as Bachman-Turner Overdrive's "Taking Care of Business" and Green Day's "American Idiot" (full songs list at the bottom of the review).

In front of a Tupac Shakur quote on the wall of KIPP LA Prep, NewSchool Venture Fund CEO Ted Mitchell discusses "Changing the Odds" in public education. The animated "Conversation with Davis Guggenheim" gives the director an opportunity Harvey LeSure, the 10th grade American History teacher who magically made a difference to him.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

Extras begin with an audio commentary by director Davis Guggenheim and producer Lesley Chilcott. They provide some background information on the subjects and their experiences.
It's a bit dry, but if you're listening, chances are you're interested to hear more of their thoughts on education and filmmaking, and you do.

"Changing the Odds" (5:33) weighs in more on the education system, with specific emphasis on some successful schools' methods.

"Updates" holds two text screens informing us of developments on situations in New York, L.A., and D.C. mentioned in the film that have changed since it was finished.

"A Conversation with Davis Guggenheim" is not the extended on-camera interview you'd expect but a short, wittily-animated cartoon (1:49) set to the director's remarks on the high school teacher that inspired him as a mediocre student.

"The Future is in Our Classrooms" (2:13) is in the same web promo vein, although this animated short focuses on reversing the high school dropout crisis.

Before writing an end credits theme, John Legend needs to think about his entire life. Briefly seen in the film itself, Steve Barr gets a chance to discuss his LA school district takeover in one of four substantial deleted scenes.

"The Making of 'Shine'" (7:07) follows musician John Legend back to his hometown of Springfield, Ohio, as he visits family members, his old music shop boss,
and his grade school for inspiration to pen the movie's end credits theme.

Four substantial deleted scenes run a staggering 31 minutes and 26 seconds. These sequences, mostly devoted to different schools, feel like kindred shorts that would have no business being squeezed into the movie. The first one looks at Miller-McCoy Academy, a unique boys school set up in post-Katrina New Orleans. The second bit covers Steve Barr's hostile takeover of a troubled L.A. school district. The third collects the philosophies of caring reformer Bill Strickland. The last looks at a trio of Brooklyn schools and a family.

Though that concludes the on-disc features, one significant inclusion is found inside the case. I'm not referring to the double-sided ad promoting the best-selling essay-compiling companion book, but a $25 DonorsChoose.org gift card to benefit the public school classroom of your choosing. Talk about an empowering treat. You've got just over two years to decide which classroom to support before the card expires.

The disc opens with an anti-tobacco spot ("incidental smoking" factored into the MPAA's questionable PG rating of the film). No trailers for Waiting or anything else are supplied.

The menus are static screens, the main of which is dramatically scored.

Families place their children's futures in the hands of a public lottery to determine the few out of many applicants able to enroll in high performance charter schools like Harlem Success Academy.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Whether you're looking for something that sheds light on the American education system's failings or simply a well-made documentary that makes you think, Waiting for "Superman" fits the bill. This may not have as universal a subject matter as Davis Guggenheim's best-known doc but it too is important and more interesting filmically. With a top-notch feature presentation and a gift card that donates more to a school than you'll probably spend on this DVD, a purchase is easy to recommend for those intrigued.

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Waiting for "Superman" Songs List (in order of use):

"Hitting the Trail"
Blondie - "Dreaming"
Patience & Prudence - "Gonna Get Along Without Ya Now"
"Blue Danube Waltz Op. 314"
Bachman-Turner Overdrive - "Takin' Care of Business"
Green Day - "American Idiot"
Michael Brook - "Selma"
John Legend - "Shine"
John Legend & The Roots - "Wake Up Everybody"

Waiting for "Superman": Original Motion Picture Score by Christophe Beck:
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Reviewed February 13, 2011.



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