For a good part of the last century and into the 21st, the image of Superman flying in from the sky to rescue strangers just in the nick of time has been a favorite childhood fantasy. The idea is actually a strong symbol of a deep Freudian desire for an all-powerful, benevolent being willing to save lives in desperate need — to help others escape from a danger that seems humanly impossible to break free from. And do it simply because it's the right thing to do. It's a nice dream growing up as a child. But once we reach adulthood, reality sets in, and such fanciful wishes turn into a subconscious longing for being rescued at the last, nerve-wracking minute, right when we feel we need it most.
Director Davis Guggenheim uses this very idea as the emotional center of the documentary 'Waiting for Superman'. Back in 2006, he stirred up a world of controversy with the still-polemic 'An Inconvenient Truth' with Al Gore. His latest hot-button subject is the public education system and exposing — or rather, attempting to explain — the confusing mess that seems humanly impossible to break free of. Sadly, as Geoffrey Canada puts it, there is no Superman to help us out of this jam, one we've made for ourselves over the course of four decades. In the documentary, we see courageous people like Mr. Canada in Harlem, and Michelle Rhee in Washington, D.C., try to fill those Superman shoes, but certain, unbreakable barriers block their somewhat radical approaches to success.
It's these invisible and ultimately defective obstacles that are the focus of Guggenheim's provocative and upsetting film. It reveals, better than any other movie has, a system in complete shambles, buried deep beneath the weight of its own self-appointed, bureaucratic red tape. In an effort to protect the jobs of good teachers, unions have made it possible to permanently secure the positions of educators who deserve to lose their jobs. School districts are allowed to work independently of each other with contradicting ideas for achieving the same goal, and they receive money with little accountability for how it used. Standardized testing and the tracking system are flawed concepts, because no one appears to receive the same education. And the list goes on in an endless cycle that only hurts the students and their potential in college or out in the workforce.
Unlike the comic books or the movies, we cannot simply point our finger at a single culprit or cause, like a Lex Luthor, responsible for creating such a disorganized catastrophe. The current state of the education system, as Guggenheim shows it, is so complex and convoluted that any person willing to challenge or repair it is met with hostility, harsh criticism, and little gratitude if their plan succeeds. Interviews with good, passionate educators wanting to see children progress vent their frustration with a system that thwarts its own best interest. Straightening out the mess is such an overwhelming and daunting task that it's much easier for most to not even bother and just go with it.
Meanwhile, parents and their children are left to fend for themselves and bet a quality education on a game of chance. Guggenheim follows five families with bright kids yearning for a good school. The parents explain their background and experience with the system, and they add their hopes in seeing their children go further than they did. Private school is, of course, an option, but as one single, working mother shows, the costs can be a devastating burden. Unfortunately, their hopes are placed into a lottery, where the luck of the draw will determine entrance into one of the best charter schools in the country. And again, watching the faces of these parents and children in stressful anticipation of their number being called, we see that hope for Superman swooping in to save the day at the last minute.
Making this metaphor ever more poignant, the filmmakers use footage from the 1950s TV show, 'Adventures of Superman' with George Reeves. In one of those segments, a school bus full of children is barreling out of control. The driver is asleep at the wheel while the big yellow vehicle goes down a hill to certain death. The man of steel — always the dependable type — arrives just in time and miraculously rescues the kids from harm's way. The message is clear. This is only a fantasy, and Superman will never show. We're left with one final thought. If an otherworldly, superhuman hero doesn't exist to save us from mortal danger, then he's less likely to rescue us from ourselves. The real task is left up to us.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Paramount Home Entertainment brings 'Waiting for Superman' on a Region Free, BD50 disc, housed in a blue eco-case and the same cover art used for the film poster. At startup, the disc goes straight to the standard menu option. The package also comes with a $25 gift-card donation, explained in further detail below.
'Waiting for Superman' lands on Blu-ray pretty much as we would expect a new documentary feature to look.
The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode is in excellent, detailed condition, showing clean, resolute lines in architecture, clothing, and fine objects. Except for some standard-def footage interspersed throughout, the picture is razor-sharp with crisp clarity and terrific texture in the healthy facial complexions of the people interviewed. Contrast is nothing impressive or very bright, but it's stable and consistent without ever hindering the overall quality. Blacks are very deep and true while shadow delineation is strong from beginning to end. The video also displays accurate and lively colors, particularly in the primaries.
Overall, this is a first-rate debut on Blu-ray for a brilliant documentary film.
This exposé on the public education system also arrives with a good DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, but again, it's pretty much what would be expected from a movie of this genre.
All the focus is placed directly on the interviews and conversations of people struggling for a proper education, so vocals are clean and precise throughout. The lossless mix delivers fine clarity detail in the center channel, and background noise spreads decently into the other two speakers to occasionally open up the soundfield a bit. Dynamic range is stable and well-balanced while low bass is mostly silent. Music is used intermittently in the rears, especially during animation sequences, but it's a very subtle use for creating a wider imaging.
In the end, the track is primarily a front-heavy show, but it does its job adequately and without any audible issues.
Paramount offers a nice but average assortment of special features for this Blu-ray edition of 'Waiting for Superman.'
The director of 'An Inconvenient Truth,' David Guggenheim, takes to task the disarray of the American education system and reveals a confusing mess that only hurts students in the end. Following the stories of five families and using the metaphor of Superman saving the day, the documentary is a distressing portrait of the lengths parents are willing to go in order to secure a good education for their children. The Blu-ray arrives with excellent picture quality, good audio presentation, and average extras. The real plus is finding a gift card that can be donated in support of public schools. Overall, it's a good package with a highly-informative film at the center.