Film News

Schools documentary could score with Republicans

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.