An Inconvenient Followup - NYT Loved Director's Al Gore Apocalypse Movie, But Finds 'Waiting for Superman' Exaggerated

The Times loved director Davis Guggenheim's Al Gore jeremiad "An Inconvenient Truth," with the Times' chief movie critic calling it "a necessary movie." But Trip Gabriel found early detractors for "Waiting for Superman," his new movie on corrupt teachers' unions, for "sometimes underplaying important nuances."
On Sunday, education reporter Trip Gabriel made a foray into the Arts & Leisure section to profile Davis Guggenheim, the director of "Waiting for Superman," a scathing indictment of U.S. public education in general and the bullheadedness of teachers' unions in particular ("Remedial Study For Failing Public Schools").

Guggenheim also directed the 2006 Al Gore environmental jeremiad "An Inconvenient Truth," unreservedly embraced at the time by the Times and the media. But since his new documentary targets a liberal redoubt - teachers unions - it's as if the Times can't wholly embrace it.

The swirl of private guilt and public obligation is what led Mr. Guggenheim, who directed the global-warming documentary "An Inconvenient Truth," to focus his camera on the country's public education system in "Waiting for Superman." After decades of bad news about student achievement and polarized policy debates, he knows, it is a topic with the power to stupefy.


What he is is a savvy storyteller, someone who pushes plenty of emotional buttons in making a rousing call to fix public education. His method: presenting his case through the stories of five city children whose families seek alternatives to abysmal local schools.

"Waiting for Superman" - the title refers to a Harlem educator's childhood belief that a superhero would fix the problems of the ghetto - won an Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival this year. It arrives in theaters this month at a moment of remarkable synchronicity for education issues; public attention is focused in a way not seen in years, largely because of a few no-prisoners superintendents in cities like New York and Washington, and because of the Obama administration's Race to the Top initiative, which has turned charter schools and teacher accountability into front-page news.


But "Waiting for Superman" has also drawn early detractors. Just as "An Inconvenient Truth" was faulted by some climate scientists who said it exaggerated the catastrophic effects of global warming, "Superman" makes its case in highly dramatic terms, sometimes underplaying important nuances.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the 1.5-million-strong American Federation of Teachers, issued a public response Sept. 9, calling the film "inaccurate, inconsistent and incomplete" and faulting Mr. Guggenheim for "casting two outliers in starring roles." Specifically, she objected to his portrayal of charter schools - only a fraction of which have produced outstanding results - as the saviors of education, while painting teachers' unions as villainous.

In a telephone interview Ms. Weingarten allowed that Mr. Guggenheim "is a superb film director, and not only has he told a great story but a poignant story about five kids and their parents looking for a better way." But she objected that the film "affixes blame rather than fixing public education."

Gabriel kept up the patter of jabs against "Waiting for Superman."

The Washington Teachers' Union is shown refusing even to vote on a proposal from the schools chancellor, Michelle A. Rhee, that would have sharply raised salaries if its members agreed to give up tenure. When Ms. Weingarten is shown delivering a stem-winding speech to her members, her voice is screechy, and the lighting and soundtrack turn Orwellian.

Many of his scenes are already out of date. New York's rubber rooms were closed in June. The same month Washington teachers accepted a breakthrough contract, which Ms. Weingarten helped negotiate, linking teachers' pay to their performance and making it easier to fire them for incompetence.

By contrast, Times chief movie critic A.O. Scott didn't dwell on nitpicking or suggest "An Inconvenient Truth" went overboard. Scott, who is not shy about his liberal politics, found "An Inconvenient Truth" to be a "necessary" piece of documentation in his May 2006 review. (The movie was a New York Times Critics' Pick.)

As unsettling as it can be, it is also intellectually exhilarating, and, like any good piece of pedagogy, whets the appetite for further study. This is not everything you need to know about global warming: that's the point. But it is a good place to start, and to continue, a process of education that could hardly be more urgent. "An Inconvenient Truth" is a necessary film.