Waiting For Superman: the biggest problem with “Waiting” in the end–it doesn’t take its own advice

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Waiting For Superman

Directed by Davis Guggenheim

It’s been announced that action-consumed Zach Snyder will be directing the next Superman movie. This ostensibly has nothing to do with Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting for Superman, the “important” documentary about America’s failing public school system, which only borrows the George Reeves Superman for a short time, and only to act as a dull, awkward framing device (the likes of which this critic hasn’t seen since his principal’s high school graduation speech). However, as different as these two films may seem, experiencing Waiting’s self-righteous characters, lack of meaningful dialogue, and busting score, one can see that the directors do in fact share more than Superman, but also the same essential ethos: to be badass. Snyder’s already used the word in reference to his upcoming film, and while Guggenheim is probably less cognizant of it, it remains, like his last film, an inconvenient truth.

Take chancellor Michelle Rhee’s part in Waiting’s story of our children’s very souls, for example. It’s not until a half hour of Guggenheim telling us how bad the Washington D.C. public system is that its maverick savior is finally introduced. When she is, she’s walking down a hallway while typing on a laptop open in her hands, like it’s a shield and sword. Immediately, everything is thrown at the audience to make clear that Rhee’s job is the hardest in the world, from cartoons to slideshow to leading questions. What else but “badass” can you hear in the forever-long-beat that takes place after the exchange:

“You think most kids are getting a crappy education right now?”

“Oh I don’t think they are. I know they are.”

…And also, this is Sparta.

It’s unfortunate because her position as a young Asian-American woman coming in to this predominantly black community and trying to change things could be fascinatingly probed. Rhee’s not the only one who gets shortchanged, though. Everyone in Guggenheim’s piece gets a gratuitous “ooh” moment. In the case of one noble single mother followed throughout, it’s even at the cost of stark, unintentional innuendo. She says, with knowing tones, that she will do “anything” to get her kid to college–forever-long-beat. Could Guggenheim really not muster up the self-restraint to leave such a gulp-worthy statement on the cutting room floor, let alone punctuate it with such a long pause and no follow up? It’s decisions like this that are exhilarating for a millisecond, but die under scrutiny, and ultimately rob an audience of getting to know a real human being’s story.

Waiting forgoes investigation for inspiration at every turn in order to be a vessel for passion and anger for the concerned parents buying tickets. The easy vilifying of union leader Randi Weingarten, the kind old man administrator, the dutiful parents, the heartfelt children, are practical pornography to the average well-meaning mom. The end even uses game show-like scoring, indicating who gets into the Charter School of Dreams and who doesn’t, because let’s face it, to most parents it’s really about winning and kicking ass in the end. To prove this, there is almost no reaction, or follow-up with the students after the fact. Are their lives really over because they couldn’t get into a charter school? Has their spirits been crushed? They are supposedly what’s “important” after all.

And that’s possibly the biggest problem with Waiting in the end–it doesn’t take its own advice. It says children are the main event, and yet keeps them sidelined once their obligatory presence is fulfilled. Activist Geoffrey Canada claims that watching a teacher is like watching “a work of art,” and yet what we are handed is a paint-by-numbers lecture with facts, figures, and talking heads sometimes shaped like Bill Gates. Where is the panache, the subtlety, and texture of good teaching? In comics right now, Superman is actually taking a break from space battles and badassery to walk across America and get more in touch with its problems. Perhaps Guggenheim should stop waiting for him, and go play catch up instead.

– Michael J Narkunski

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