Oscar-winning documentary about climate change was called
An Inconvenient Truth
His new one could be called Some Uncomfortable Truths.
In fact, the title of Guggenheim's powerful personal essay about America's education crisis is Waiting for "Superman." But in its description of a system that is battered, broken, and profoundly resistant to change, the documentary lays blame on people and institutions that may have trouble acknowledging their responsibility.
"I was getting my kids ready for school, for the first day of school," says Guggenheim, recalling the moment three years ago when the idea for Waiting for "Superman" kicked in.
"I was putting them in the minivan, and then I started counting the schools that I drove by - the public schools - on the way to the private school that we were paying for them to go to. . . . And I felt like if we really want to fix public education, you have to call out some uncomfortable truths. Like my own uncomfortable truth: that I was betraying the ideals I thought I lived by, that I'm part of the problem."
Guggenheim's film about global warming, starring Al Gore and his PowerPoint, is the fifth-highest-grossing documentary in box-office history. Guggenheim's music doc, It Might Get Loud, put guitar legends Jimmy Page, Jack White, and The Edge together in a room to jam and jaw. Guggenheim directed the Barack Obama campaign film A Mother's Promise, and has helmed episodes of the HBO series Deadwood and the Fox series 24. His wife is actress Elizabeth Shue. They can afford to pay for their kids' educations, and they have.
But the families in Waiting for "Superman" - opening Friday at the Ritz East - are a different story. A single mother in New York struggles to make the monthly installments for her daughter's tuition at a parochial school. A family in East Los Angeles want desperately for their daughter - the bright-eyed Daisy - to attend a high-performance charter school, rather than the low-scoring public school in their neighborhood. But there's an admission lottery, and the odds of getting in are daunting.
Likewise for Anthony, a Washington, D.C., fifth grader whose father had died of a drug overdose. The D.C. public education system is among the most problem-plagued in the land - low reading and math scores, high dropout rates. If his number doesn't come up in the lottery, what happens?
Waiting for "Superman" follows these kids, and several others, as they and their families are presented with the grim realities of "dropout factories" and "academic sinkholes" - or, in an affluent Silicon Valley community, with a high school that just isn't as good as it should be. In the process, Guggenheim, who narrates the film, points to some of the culprits: intractable government bureaucracies, immovable teachers unions.
"I'm a liberal, I'm a Democrat," Guggenheim says. "My father would sit at the dinner table and sing the praises of the union movement and how it shaped this nation in the 20th century. But the reality is that there needs to be real innovation, and that's been hard to implement."
Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, is one of the talking heads in the film. Michelle Rhee, the controversial chancellor of the Washington, D.C, schools, is another. Guggenheim's argument - and Rhee's - is that the teachers' unions place more importance on job security, on tenure, than they do on developing and rewarding exceptional teachers, or in weeding out the bad ones.
If there's a villain in Waiting for "Superman," it is the teachers unions, and, not surprisingly, the film has raised considerable ire from the rank-and-file.
"We've kind of all betrayed the ideals we should live by," says Guggenheim, who screened his film in D.C. two weeks ago, to a crowd that included Weingarten; Rhee; the U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan; legislators; and educators. "And we're not going to fix the schools until we change that. . . . But there is no easy solution."
It isn't surprising that Guggenheim, 46, works in documentaries - his father was Charles Guggenheim, who made films about Robert F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, about the St. Louis Arch and the Johnstown Flood. But Davis opted to go his own way after college, moving to Hollywood and landing jobs in television. In the '90s, he directed episodes of ER, NYPD Blue, and Party of Five. Ironically, it was his big break into feature filmmaking - he was hired to direct Training Day, the 2001 Denzel Washington corrupt-cop thriller - that led to his turn toward nonfiction cinema.
"I got fired off of Training Day," Guggenheim confesses. "I've only just started even telling my friends about it, because it was so painful. I really felt it was going to be The French Connection . . . a real signature movie. I found the script, and took years developing it, and I just got fired."
Guggenheim says that Washington wanted to bring in a different director, and that the studio obliged, even though "I was the only one who [initially] wanted him. . . . I just thought that taking this actor who has such dignity, and having him play someone that bad - I had an instinct about that."
Washington, of course, went on to win the best-actor Oscar for the role.
And Guggenheim was "heartbroken." He bought a digital camera and decided "I was going to make a movie about people that I like." His idea: follow a group of new teachers, just starting out in the classrooms. The First Year won a Peabody Award.
"I was so angry at the studio system, I was so angry at Hollywood," he recalls. "In retrospect, it was the best thing that happened to me. . . . Those five teachers were heroes to me. . . . Just being in those classrooms every day for a year really changed me. You really see the stakes."
Waiting for "Superman," just now making its way into theaters, has already triggered huge debate. For Guggenheim, part of the solution is a change of perspective, a move towards empathy and community.
"I came in really excited one morning because I thought I had found the title for the movie," he remembers. "Well, it was the wrong title, but it turned out to be the organizing principle of the movie: Other People's Children.
"And the idea is that if I could get people to care about other people's children as much as they care about their own - that was the challenge in making the film. . . . If you're a parent, you will do anything to educate your kid. You'll do ridiculous things. We pay ridiculous amounts of money. Some parents will drive a ridiculous distance, or they will buy an apartment on another side of town, or they'll cheat and pretend they live in a district with better schools."
And Guggenheim hopes that his audiences will "see in these kids what you see in your own kids. Your heart goes out to them, and you just want them to succeed."