Three Reviews of “Superman”: How the Media Spins the Story

Flying home from Minneapolis last Friday gave me the opportunity to read, back to back, reviews of “Waiting for Superman” in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today. I learned as much about the newspapers as I did about the movie, which remains on my “to do” list.

It is to their credit that all three papers reviewed the film, despite the fact that it’s not a love story, shoot-out, or fantasy flick. (It helped that the producer, Davis Guggenheim, was the same guy who did Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth.”)  And, to be fair, the reviews were all informative, well-written and mostly positive. At least when it comes to movies, the allegedly collapsing print media still seems perfectly capable of doing its job.

But it is in the nuances of the reviews—not their overall assessments—that the nature of newspaper coverage today reveals itself. Scott Bowles, in USA Today, was, like the newspaper for which he writes, open, frank and totally lacking in self-protective reserve. He declares the flick to be “masterful,” one that has “vaulted itself” to a place among the “year’s best films” (a bold declaration when the major movie months of the year are just now beginning).  He admits that the director gets “a little heated in his attack on the teachers union” but concludes that the “final 10 minutes. . . is as compelling as any feature film.”

Writing for the business-minded Wall Street Journal, Joe Morgenstern does not fault the movie for fingering “teachers’ unions as the main obstacle to reform” and painting “Randi Weingarten, the former head of the United Federation of Teachers, as a pedagogic Darth Vader.”  But we are told that Guggenheim “keeps his advocacy” as much “in plain view” in this documentary as the producer did in his famous “Inconvenient” flick.  Morgentstern nonetheless  finds in the film “tremendous power” and concludes that  “in purely dramatic terms, the film’s structure is shrewd, and its climax devastating.”

If one expects praise from a Wall Street Journal reviewer, one is no less disappointed by the tone Stephen Holden brings to his review in the New York Times. Well aware of the newspaper’s reluctance to criticize teacher unions, Holden provides a bucketful of contextual information thought to be important to understand the documentary.  He reminds his readers that “charter schools have had mixed success in elevating academic standards” and devotes a lengthy (and inaccurate) paragraph to telling us that DC Superintendent Michelle Rhee “stridently” took on the teachers union.  Most notably (notoriously?) he helpfully explains that Weingarten, said to be “demonized by the film,” is obliged to represent the “thousands of teachers who depend on tenure.”  I had thought they depended on their ability to teach. Silly me.

Holden admits the movie is “powerful and alarming,” but he finds its ending not climactic but only “happy-sad.” And far from dwelling on the failures of educators, Holden tells us that the crisis depicted in the film is due to the “widening gap between rich and poor.”

Those who read only one newspaper can learn about “Superman” in a way that will keep safe the opinions they already hold.  After reading all three, however, I am inclined to see the documentary.  I hope you are too.

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