Schools documentary could score with Republicans

Mon Jan 25, 2010 1:22am EST

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PARK CITY, Utah (Hollywood Reporter) - More than a few Hollywood heads were scratched when Paramount announced last week that it had picked up worldwide distribution rights to "Waiting for Superman," the latest documentary from the director of "An Inconvenient Truth."

Davis Guggenheim's new film, which chronicles the sorry state of the U.S. public education system, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday.

Sure, "An Inconvenient Truth" -- released in 2006 by Paramount Vantage -- grossed nearly $50 million, won two Oscars and made unlikely movie stars out of Al Gore and PowerPoint. But that film managed a unique feat among documentaries, riding a political and celebrity-fueled zeitgeist (in that case, liberal anger over the Bush administration's environmental policies) in a way that caused moviegoers to show up as much to support the cause as to be entertained by the content.

A studied expose of failing school systems probably won't enjoy the same buzz factor among Huffington Post readers or Prius-driving celebrities, so Paramount has its work cut out for it in making this wonky subject matter appealing to more than just policy nerds. But the film could find an equally enthusiastic audience on the other side of the political spectrum: In many ways, "Superman" might be as much a conservative call to action on education reform as "Truth" was a rallying cry for Democrats on the environment.

The film takes an even-keeled look at the issue, and its subjects -- from educators to frustrated parents to Bill Gates (who showed up for a post-screening Q&A) -- espouse no political leanings. But there does seem to be a clear villain in "Superman," and it's the various Democrat-supported teachers unions that the film presents as the most powerful and entrenched impediment to real education reform.

That's not a new argument. Lifetime tenure, lax oversight and the lack of a performance-based compensation system have for years been blamed on the stranglehold that powerful teachers unions maintain over elected officials, especially Democrats. But this film is as merciless in its characterization of the unions and their self-serving leaders as "Truth" was of the Bush administration's stance on global warming. And at least at the federal level, Democrats like Bill and Hillary Clinton are shown as examples of the unions' prime beneficiaries.

In fact, for all its focus on underprivileged, inner-city kids, sections of "Superman" feel like they could have been cut together by Bill O'Reilly. Slo-mo footage of union leader speeches opposing reform that could help problem schools. Hidden-cam video of a teacher reading a newspaper and checking his watch as his class goofs around. New York educators being paid millions to not teach. A major subject of the film, reform-minded DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, runs into a crippling teachers-union road block in her effort to shift pay structures to reward good teachers.

These aren't cut-and-dried Republican vs. Democrat issues, of course, and the film also discusses failed Republican-supported education policies like No Child Left Behind. But the connection of the villainous teachers unions to Democrats could spark interest in this film among the exact conservative talking-head class that so hated "Inconvenient Truth."

Introducing the film, Guggenheim thanked Paramount for having "the courage to see that a film about public education could actually make some money and could actually change the issue and (for thinking they) could try to do what they did with 'An Inconvenient Truth' again."

Maybe Paramount can pull it off. Political pundits and op-ed writers will certainly be interested in the film. But in taking "Superman" to the masses, the studio should consider courting conservatives in the same way the marketing for "Inconvenient Truth" spoke to liberals. "Superman" could even end up prompting political change, just as "Truth" energized the global warming movement.

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Comments (2)
wyn wrote:
All unions are suspect. But teachers’ unions especially so. They deliberately stand, (not just seem to deliberately stand) in the way of educational reform while demanding more money, more perks. If I didn’t know better, I’d be tempted to say they’re out to destroy the ability of the next generation to govern itself. I have to think they want people to be ignorant of the Constitution, of citizens’ rights AND responsibilities. I’d even suspect they want everyone so ignorant they unable to make good lives for themselves. But I won’t actually say it’s a conspiracy. No. I’d say the teachers unions and their members are simply dupes. That they really do deserve their salaries and perks. After all its so hard to teach, so much harder than say, a principal’s job or an accountant’s or librarian’s. Or any other job.

Jan 25, 2010 7:55am EST  --  Report as abuse
faketeacher wrote:
Teachers correctly oppose “reforms” because the reforms are not valid solutions to the malaise affecting education. Standardized testing, more rigor, content based on quantity,
and top down (NCLB) micro management have never worked in the private sector and do not work in education.

Unions are a very necessary organizations when you have inept management. Inept in terms of understanding and implementing the purpose of the organization.

Teachers and their unions do recognize that the key to improving learning is understanding that variation exists in all things; that children will lead if given the opportunity and that the goal is life long learning, not a annual or semi annual or quarterly cut score on a one size fits all test based upon the hypothesis that all kids, communities, schools and cultures are the same.

If schools are so bad how did medical practice advance, science achieve breakthroughs and the quality of life for all improve so much?

Seems the movie makers are looking in all the wrong places in their investigation of education.

Ignorance and shallow thinking reigns supreme.

Jan 25, 2010 9:40am EST  --  Report as abuse
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