Sunday, February 27, 2011

THE KING’S SPEECH (2010): King George VI

The Academy Award Ceremonies for movies filmed in 2010 is this evening so I am in a rush to get this review out before the award for best picture is announced.  I neither know nor care which film is going to win (as a general rule, committees seldom get it right), but I do know that The King’s Speech will receive accolades.  It’s a well made and extremely conventional film that for the most part accomplishes what the director set out to do: make the audience feel sympathetic towards the lead character, King George VI (Colin Firth).  Since we’ve only had two or three movies in the last twenty years that have won the Best Picture Oscar that were anything but conventional movies, I’d say that The King’s Speech has a good chance of winning.

George VI (called “Bertie” by his family) never expected that he would ascend to the throne.  That was to be the destiny of his older brother, David (Guy Pearce), later to become King Edward VIII.  There were a couple of complications in having Edward VIII retain his key role in the monarchy, however.  For one, he intended to marry a twice divorced American woman, Wallis Simpson (Eve Best).  This would be totally unacceptable to the Church of England.  More significantly (and something barely hinted at in The King’s Speech) are the fascist leanings of the Edward VIII and the close ties that Simpson had with members of the Nazi regime in power in Germany.  Within a few years, Hitler’s troops would be bombing London, so Edward VIII getting married off in this manner was actually a blessing to the English people.

There was one problem with Bertie taking the throne (and it was impossible not to know this with the publicity that this film has received): he was a stutterer.  Whether it was because he was left-handed, bullied by his domineering father, ridiculed by other family members (especially by David), abused by his nanny, haunted by the death of another brother who suffered from epilepsy, or mostly friendless as a child - all of these circumstances are tossed out as possible contributing factors for this speech defect.  If Bertie was to take the throne, he would also be expected to make wartime speeches to counter the rabble rousing diatribes given by Hitler to increasingly larger rallies throughout Germany.  Thus, before and after he ascended the throne, Bertie is seen on almost a daily basis by a brilliant speech therapist named Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush).  Logue, a failed actor (not a licensed physician), has many years of experience working with those struggling to speak including soldiers wounded in World War I.  Logue insists that he and his royal client treat each other as equals – something that one about to take the throne might find to be a difficult task.  Nevertheless, because of Logue’s therapy and the support of Bertie’s wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), King George VI succeeds at making that first speech (and we’re to presume many others) to the English people with little to indicate the presence of any speech impediment whatsoever.

The King’s Speech is a simple and moving story.  The film does as good a job of presenting Collin Firth in the role of underdog as any film about the royalty could possibly deliver.  Firth, Rush and Pearce are all excellently cast in their respective roles.  We at all times feel like we are in pre-war England throughout the movie, and at 111 minutes the film does not seem overly long for a movie that’s a borderline melodrama.  That’s probably enough for this kind of film because it certainly wasn’t designed to get below the depths of anything.   David Siedler wrote the screenplay (who never has written anything else significant that has appeared in film to date) and Tom Hooper directed the movie (who has always directed films for television before this).  If the film was intended to show us the human side of the royal family, it certainly accomplishes this (though probably no better than The Queen filmed in 2006).  The story of Edward VIII abdication from the throne was so well publicized in the tabloid news that we don’t get much dirt known only among the inner circles of the royal family.  Edward VIII was the bad king that thankfully stepped aside for the good king, George VI.  The movie is not about Edward VIII, so I guess we didn’t need to know about his incessant womanizing that went on long before he met Wallis Simpson, that after the abdication he and his wife (who became the Duke and Duchess of Windsor) visited Hitler in Germany, that the couple were guarded by Nazi security when they lived in occupied Paris, that Winston Churchill threatened the Duke with court marshal if he did not return to British soil and show at least a little concern that England may be destroyed by the Nazi bombings, and otherwise harbored racist feelings to all non-white members of the British empire.  Since it is about George VI, one good deed of the king never mentioned in the film was that he and his wife remained in London during the blitzkrieg that was occurring in the skies of London during the entire Battle of Britain.  Because of this show of courage, George VI probably renewed faith in a monarchy that many will always debate to be a useless institution.

As much as I pretend otherwise, I was somewhat impressed that the Academy Award committee last year showed a bit of acumen by choosing The Hurt Locker over the obscenely popular Avatar.  Still, it doesn’t bother me that conventional films often get the nod because what passes for “edgy” in Hollywood is often pseudo-babble dressed up as profundity.  If The King’s Speech receives the Oscar instead of The Social Network, I will await the critics lamenting that once again a film with social relevance has been passed up for the award.  It’s these same critics that are guilty of hyping pretension and cynicism over stories that they never quite admit affect them emotionally.

February 27, 2011

© Robert S. Miller 2011

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

WAITING FOR SUPERMAN (2010): The Education of Our Children

Whatever the merit is of his films, Director Davis Guggenheim has a knack for getting his documentaries discussed in the mainstream media.  The last documentary that was discussed as much as Waiting for Superman was An Inconvenient Truth, released in 2006 and also directed by Guggenheim.  With An Inconvenient Truth Guggenheim was doing the bidding for those in the environmental movement that supported legislative reform such as “Cap and Trade,” and with Waiting for Superman he is doing the bidding of those that support educational reform such as those that advocate further implementation of the use of charter schools.  I guess Guggenheim deserves credit for on one hand going after the corporate polluters (endearing him to liberals such as Al Gore) and on the other hand going after teacher unions (endearing him to cultural conservatives that feel our public education system is failing our children).  Then again, Guggenheim is probably guilty of opportunism by pushing whatever cause may be popular at the time.

Waiting for Superman does raise some extremely valid points.  Whether our educational system is or is not failing our children, there is not a thoughtful person in our nation that doesn’t hope that our school system can do better.  George W. Bush brought in “No Child Left Behind,” and the Obama administration is now calling to overhaul that legislation with their own initiative named “Race to the Top,” calling it our “Sputnik moment” to improve our educational system (see President Obama’s State-of-the-Union address).  The educational reform movement would not have become so politicized unless the whole issue was vital to the American public. 

In Waiting for Superman, we follow the families of five students desperate enough to apply for admission to charter schools so these students can escape a public school system plagued by crime, violence, drug abuse and incompetent teachers and administrators.  Anthony, who is being raised by his grandmother, is applying for a school with 69 applicants vying for 24 admissions.  Francisco lives in Harlem and is among 792 students applying for 40 possible openings.  Bianca, who also lives in Harlem, is among 767 students applying for 35 openings.  Emily, who lives in Silicon Valley, is nevertheless applying for a charter school because in even such a wealthy community the schools are failing their students.  And sadly, the prodigal Daisy, who desires to become a doctor and shows a great aptitude for learning, is one of 135 students applying for a charter school in Los Angeles with only 10 openings.  The students applying to charter schools such as these are chosen through a lottery system, and their presence is required when the numbers are drawn to see if they are or are not selected for admission.

We’re fed a lot of statistics in Waiting for Superman - with little context provided throughout the showing.  In this the film lacks any in-depth analysis, which was also missing in An Inconvenient Truth.  Yes, the statistics report that America’s school system is falling behind those of other industrial nations (our students are 21st in science and 25th in math in the rankings), but accepting this at face value is dependent on whether those statistics presented from other nations and our own are actually reported accurately.  We also have sound bites from individuals such as Geoffrey Canada, a former educator and current educational activist with a non-profit organization called “The After School Corporation.”  Michelle Rhee, the controversial former Chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools, utters some incendiary remarks about the quality of our teachers and schools (“I know they’re getting a crappy education …”).  Bill Strickland, who served on the board for the National Endowment of the Arts, is shown in a charter school demonstrating his novel application of the arts to reach youths from troubled neighborhoods.   Strickland is quoted as saying that “everybody is going to drown” if we don’t do something about our schools.  Bill Gates talks about his own foundation's effort to finance alternate forms of education.  Finally, Randi Weingarten, the President of the American Federation of Teachers, makes an appearance not so much to present the other side of the story, but to be quoted to supposedly demonstrate that the teachers’ union is unsympathetic and basically opposed to any kind of education reform.

Waiting for Superman contains a good storyline in that it demonstrates how potentially good students are being neglected a decent education - especially in the poorer neighborhoods of our country.  For example, we discover a school that graduated only 20,000 of the 60,000 students that had attended it.  And though they are not becoming executives among our corporations, minorities are populating our prisons.  We spend approximately $667 billion in federal money annually on our schools (though according to one set of Congressional budget statistics, only 23 cents of every dollar allotted to education is actually spent on education) and propose $100 billion dollars of educational spending increases in Congress every year.  As Guggenheim is quick to point out, lack of funding might not be the problem.

But Guggenheim presents to us a problem without much of a solution.  Charter Schools, he seems to be saying, are the Holy Grail.  That he only presents to us a handful of charter schools, and that we have no way of knowing if the schools he shows are either as good as he suggests or representative of charter schools as a whole, does not seem to concern Guggenheim.  We’re not given a complete answer as to why some schools succeed and others fail.  Blame in this film is directed at the public schools, the teachers’ union, and the failure of either to base teacher salaries upon merit.  Guggenheim barely addresses crime, drug abuse and violence.  A criticism of Waiting for Superman is that it only presents students raised by family members motivated in seeing their children succeed.  These students may not be typical of those in our public schools.  If students in charter schools are more successful (and that contention is debatable), it may be because they have someone at home that cares enough to see them succeed.  Also, what denotes a failing school is tossed around in the movie without precision.  “No Child Left Behind” has been criticized because it encourages schools to focus on making children better at taking tests while not making them better students.  Certain charter schools prepare students to take standard tests without preparing them to function better in the outside world.  Nor do we ever learn in the film how feasible it would be to create a system of charter schools that could be used by more than a small percentage of the population.

Still, what critics of Waiting for Superman have missed is that the importance of the film is not in a specific solution, but in its plea that something needs to be done.  Whether we do or do not think the public school system is in as difficult of a predicament as Guggenheim seems to suggest, educational reform is not an issue that is going to go away.  (I even saw a remark in a Mother Jones article, a magazine known for forwarding progressive causes, criticizing many liberals for not getting behind the reform of our educational system.)  Whether we are or are not satisfied with the quality of education in this country, again, no one is saying that we do not want for our schools to be better.  Critics of Waiting for Superman poke fun at Guggenheim’s suggestion that charter schools are the answer, but these critics do not provide any solution of their own – outside of suggesting we spend more money.  Waiting for Superman is a 102 minute conversation starter.

When watching the children waiting to see if their number is picked in the heartless lottery system that the charter schools employed (and for some reason the five students featured in this film had to witness), one still felt empathy for the children and hoped that each of them somehow could receive an education that would better their situations.  If the quality of our education is truly the most important consideration to the future of our country, then we also need to address the competency of our teachers and the resistance of the teachers’ union to change.

February 8, 2011
©  Robert Miller 2011