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Two end-of-year docs as antidote to holidays

Are you craving to counteract all that holiday cheer with some good old-fashioned documentary depression? Never fear, two hard-hitters are still in theatres and soon to be on-demand or in your queue. I saw them both in recent weeks and while both hold their end of the bargain to keep up the doc-is-downer reputation, one is a far more complex experience than the other. (By the way, doc had a good year – with CATFISH, EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP, I’M STILL HERE – filmmakers soon may be able to ditch the downer syndrome and engage nonfiction for what it should be – more diverse in approach, content, tone and negotiation with ‘truth.’) I’m speaking here of INSIDE JOB (Charles Ferguson) and WAITING FOR SUPERMAN (Davis Guggenheim).

Simply put, INSIDE JOB, about the 2008 financial crisis, is superb. Ferguson has come a long way as a filmmaker since NO END IN SIGHT (his Iraq-as-debacle film) which was also good, but this piece ups the ante in that it is simply extraordinarily entertaining. Score, visuals and narration (go Matt Damon!) – all excellent. Muckraking to the max without the earnestness of “Frontline” or the antipathy of Moore, Ferguson’s presence in the film is pitch-perfect. He is a character, in that his point of view is overwhelming, and his distinctive voice plus disarmingly simple-yet-effective interview approach makes his subjects literally squirm in their seats. What could be more fun to watch – bankers in the hot seat? Even if what Ferguson uncovers is devastating, the film serves to incite while also providing for time well spent, speaking of investments. And any film that makes Eliot Spitzer a hero, and convincingly so, is great in my book. A huge feat.

WAITING FOR SUPERMAN, on the other hand, feels like a boulder on the shoulders. Granted, the film illuminates some crucial problems, with the signature clarifying Guggenheim graphics, just as he did in the Al Gore movie. (I’m officially middle-aged when this title NEVER loads to the brain. Never.) BUT. Guggenheim structures his film on the drama of  whether or not his protagonists will get in to a charter via lottery – as opposed to building a case. And his presence in the film feels icky – details from his privileged life do not drama make. Although it could never match the delight of making Wall Streeters sweat – so slightly unfair here to compare – SUPERMAN simply weighs itself down with a tone that is both sanctimonious and strangely self-defeating, while also not representing problems and solutions wholly. (What film could? It was a ridiculous conceit to think one film could aptly and accurately depict “the state of education in the U.S.”) The film has come under fire for presenting charter schools as some sort of magic bullet model, an answer to the problem of American public schools; Guggenheim countered criticism that it just happened to be the answer for his group of protagonists. Well, that’s a problem. We read “drama stats” in films – and a solution for 5/5 kids means … it’s a solution, according to the filmmaker. Ferguson, on the other hand, makes a clear argument in his film (the crisis could have been avoided and it wasn’t, purposefully) with a deft hand that won’t fully sully your holiday, just make you better informed and possibly even … motivated.

–AH

Both trailers are here: