A decade ago, TV director Davis Guggenheim (NYPD Blue, Deadwood) made Teach, a documentary about heroic inspiration in the public-school classroom. Where Teach was micro, Guggenheim’s new documentary, Waiting for “Superman,” goes macro, briskly dissecting a public-education system that many consider broken. Guggenheim directed the Al Gore documentary An Inconvenient Truth, and here he addresses what he views as another inconvenient truth—that our urban public schools not only countenance failure, but systematically create it. Conventional wisdom holds that poverty causes bad schools, but “Superman” insists we’ve got that backwards. Bad schools, often staffed with the system’s worst teachers and devoid of meaningful classroom expectations, are little more than “failure factories,” churning out defective human products who are plowed back into the neighborhood in a vicious circle of human and institutional depletion.
The upside, in Guggenheim’s view, is that if bad schools create poverty, good ones can help eradicate it. “Superman” delivers a brief for charter schools, private-public institutions that operate largely outside the system’s curricular, personnel, and policy mandates. Touting the results of several renowned charter schools, Guggenheim paints a “for-us-or-against-us” picture. On one side stand the teachers’ unions, whose intransigence he views as the primary impediment to reform. (We visit New York City’s notorious “rubber room,” where teachers charged with incompetence—or worse—can spend years doing nothing, a paid internal exile created by union contracts that make teachers nearly impossible to fire.) On the other side are such prominent reformers as the Harlem-based charter-school guru Geoffrey Canada; the former Washington, D.C., superintendent Michelle Rhee, whose controversial three-year tenure featured mass principal and teacher firings; and David Levin and Mike Feinberg, founders of the KIPP system, a network of high-performing academies.
Waiting for “Superman”—the title refers to Geoffrey Canada’s boyhood fantasy of being rescued from his life in the Bronx—follows five kids seeking entry into charter schools. Four are city kids from underresourced, single-parent minority families, with mothers whose own life difficulties and woeful school experiences have galvanized their resolve to have their children fare better. Interviews with the families build a fragile hope that is then mostly dashed, when—following excruciating scenes of school lottery drawings—only two of the five make it.
Guggenheim treats the system’s failings with a droll, Michael Moore–like irony, minus the underlying gut anger. In one memorable sequence, he uses cartoon figures to illustrate what he calls the Turkey Trot, a.k.a. Dance of the Lemons, the annual ritual in which underperforming teachers are shuttled from one school to another. The film’s tone remains upbeat: while our problems are grave, it tells us, at least we know what a solution looks like, if only we can muster the political fortitude to implement it. You come out feeling less chastened than enthusiastic, ready to rah-rah for the kids, for charter schools, for anyone willing to challenge the status quo. The film’s reformist enthusiasm seems unexceptionable.
And yet many are taking powerful exception. And not just the teachers unions, either. One withering critique came from Diane Ravitch, former Assistant Secretary of Education, whose essay in the November 11, 2010, New York Review of Books claims that only one in five charter schools outperform public schools in the manner “Superman” showcases. She also notes that Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone “surrounds children and their families with a broad array of social and medical services”—while drawing on privately-raised assets of more than $200 million. Indeed, Ravitch calls Waiting for “Superman” “a powerful weapon on behalf of those championing the ‘free market’ and privatization.” And, she adds pointedly, “the stock market crash of 2008 should suffice to remind us that the managers of the private sector do not have a monopoly on success.”
Such vehement refutations leave viewers of “Superman” to disentangle fair criticism from a tendentious defense of turf. But those on both sides of the issue will agree that a lottery makes for a cruel sorting-out of destinies. These children have had enough bad breaks in their lives already—so why are we holding their educational hopes hostage to yet another roll of the dice?
Where “Superman” elicits cheers and boos with cheerleaderish innocence, Inside Job—which examines the global financial meltdown—proceeds with the cool and methodical relentlessness of a prosecution. Director Charles Ferguson opens his case in Iceland, where banking deregulation led to a borrowing spree that fueled a huge bubble, the collapse of which destroyed the island’s economy. It is a canny tactic, with panoramas of the island’s remote and unearthly beauty bringing home the global reach of the man-made money calamity, as if to say, Even here?!
What unfolded in Iceland was a miniature study of our own debacle—“one of the purest experiments in financial deregulation ever,” one commentator puts it. Ferguson knows that the layperson, daunted by the arcane language of economics, has tended to view the crisis in a fog of uncertainty, emerging with a “things got out of control” verdict. Wrong. Inside Job insists that things were wholly in control. “This crisis was not an accident,” narrator Matt Damon tells us; “and this is how it happened.” We get a minicourse in antecedents to the calamity, like the 1999 repeal of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act, which had built an institutional firewall between lending and investing—a structural prudence, installed in the aftermath of the 1929 crash, the removal of which vastly increased the risks that large depository banks were allowed to undertake.
Ferguson interviews George Soros, who compares financial regulation to compartments on an oil tanker designed to prevent a leak in one from creating a total calamity. Deregulation removed the compartments, he notes, and then—well, you can follow the metaphor. And it isn’t really all that complicated, Ferguson tells us. Things that seem obvious are obvious. For instance, that if the loan business is restructured so that lenders don’t take the hit on bad mortgages, but can pass the poison along, they will soon lend to anyone. Or that if investment banks pay the rating agencies who rate their bonds, the agencies providing the best ratings will get the most business. Can anyone say “conflict of interest”?
Inside Job insists that such decisions should be seen not as errant policy, or even irresponsibility, but rather as calculated strategies for self-enrichment deployed by identifiable individuals acting out of naked greed. The roll call of culprits includes such Midases as Richard Fuld, CEO of Lehman Brothers ($485 million in compensation between 2000 and 2007); Stan O’Neal of Merrill Lynch ($161 million severance pay); and Joseph Cassano of AIG, who took home $300 million selling credit default swaps he knew could never stand up if the CDOs they insured ever went bad. The film’s perp walk includes government officials too, like Alan Greenspan and Robert Rubin, whose efforts to keep securitized derivatives unregulated draw scorn (and earned Rubin millions). Lawrence Summers makes $20 million as a consultant to a hedge fund built on derivatives. Henry Paulson, head of Goldman Sachs in 2004, lobbies the SEC to relax limits on leverage for investment banks, allowing debt-to-asset ratios to rise from 3-to-1 to 30-to-1, pumping risk into the system—and taking home $31 million in 2005. That such raiders are called in as fixers for the system they broke is one of the many acid ironies Ferguson reminds us we have swallowed.
Chief witnesses for the prosecution in Inside Job are a cohort of truth-speakers including Charles R. Morris, the frequent Commonweal contributor whose prescient 2008 book The Trillion-Dollar Meltdown predicted the debacle. Christine Lagarde, French Minister of economic affairs, is quoted emerging from the February 2008 G7 meeting with this thought for Paulson: “We see this huge tsunami coming and all you’re talking about is which swimsuit we should put on.” Lee Hsien Loong, prime minister of Singapore, looks back on the collapse and observes, simply, that “when you start thinking you can create something out of nothing, it’s very difficult to resist.”
After a moral cataclysm—the Nazi nightmare, for instance—such witnesses provide the crucial function of reminding us that truth is not merely hindsight. People knew what was happening to our financial system—both those few critics who uttered the proverbial cry in the wilderness, and, more important, the crew of pirates who hijacked the system and smashed it on the rocks, leaving us to scramble in the ruins as they walked off, pockets bulging with gold. Inside Job reminds us how roundly we’ve been duped, lied to, cheated, and ripped off. “The men who destroyed their own companies and brought the world economy to ruins,” Ferguson closes, “walked away with their fortunes intact.” What are we to do, where are we to turn, when Ivy League presidents are getting $350K a year for sitting on Goldman’s board? Inside Job rises to a crescendo of indignation, and leaves you weak with rage. In the process it brings home the truth known to aficionados of heist movies: the most daring caper is the one that happens right in front of you, in plain day.
About the Author
Rand Richards Cooper is Commonweal's contributing editor.