If Health Care is the third-rail of US politics, then the education system must be a train, packed with school kids, hurtling out of control. No, this isn't a review of Unstoppable, but the analogy is ruthlessly apt when you consider Academy Award winning documentarian Davis Guggenheim's (An Inconvenient Truth) bone-chilling portrait of public schools in Waiting for “Superman”.
Guggenheim is no stranger to the US school system, having followed five teachers for 180 days in the 2001 TV documentary The First Year. In his impassioned and unapologetically personal opening narration, Guggenheim cites these credentials, perhaps in an effort to counterbalance the shellacking he’s about to serve up to the Teachers' Union. Indeed in this damning chronicle of a system so broken it doesn’t even warrant the name anymore, the protectionist practices of the Teachers' Union provide a handy punching bag to vent the waves of incredulous rage that build up over the course of the documentary.
But wait, this is about the kids. For all Guggenheim’s infuriating tales of ‘lemon’ teachers and the ‘terror of tenure’, his main aim is to give this reality some human faces. Following five kids rather than teachers this time, he sets their sunny hopes for the future against the woeful statistics that look set to steal their dreams. When the kids apply for the Holy Grail of public education: a chance to attend a successful, independent Charter School, which is decided via a lottery. This certainly provides the documentary a terrifying, heart-in-your-mouth climax, and one that is sure to raise some bile if the proceeding facts have failed to do so.
If Superman provides the film’s overarching metaphor, then Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools Michelle Rhee and education reformer Geoffrey Canada come as close to real life, butt-kicking heroes as possible. Both straight-talking, committed and downright ballsy individuals provide glimmers of hope amongst the darkness that surround them. However their insights, plus the five kids, various animations and other talking heads spread Guggenheim much too thinly across this important ground. While he and his team of editors piece these strands together in undeniably compelling fashion, less might have ultimately proven to be more.
Waiting for "Superman" is essential viewing. It's as simple as that. Though jam-packed and shamelessly earnest, it is a well-crafted and crucially effective call to arms against the reign of these 'failure factories.' Most importantly, it is impossible not to be touched, nay, radicalised by this devastatingly inconvenient truth.
Australian release date: 24 March 2011