The Man of Steel

Director Davis Guggenheim is exhausted. After long hours on the road, the education crusader is ready for the trip home and an opportunity to spend time with his children, who just saw their father’s [most recent film] “Waiting For ‘Superman,’” in theaters a few weeks ago.

“My kids are lucky, they won the lottery,” Guggenheim said. “I want every kid to win the lottery. My children are asking about the other kids, they want them to be okay. Before they saw the movie, they took what they had for granted — what every kid takes for granted.”

If anyone was going to convince the world that learning is hip, Guggenheim may be the man to do it. He’s spent time with U2 and has an Oscar resting on his mantle-piece. He is the poster boy for unpracticed cool — he breathes it.

“This one was particularly hard,” he admits. “We filmed in Harlem, Washington, East L.A. We also filmed in New Orleans — a bunch of other places. The lotteries [to get into charter schools] were all happening the same week. We couldn’t go to all of them — I couldn’t go to all of them.”

He explains that his colleagues had a wall with every scene in the film taped to it, connecting them. Very John Nash of him.

“Except no genius involved,” he laughs.

Critics seem to disagree. “‘Superman,’” which opens this Friday, follows the story of five children and their families as they battle through public school bureaucracy in hopes of securing a spot at a coveted charter school. No child depicted is the same, except for the enthusiasm about having a richer, more fulfilling education. Some are wealthy, others are poor — all go to terrible schools.

As the film progresses, the children’s stories intertwine with the adults that Guggenheim introduces as the children’s champions, the ones attempting to incite change in the American school system. The struggle is futile, tragically so, and though Guggenheim dices in animation in an attempt to make the film more “fun” and less of an informational burden, the effect the children imparts on the audience is never diminished.

As a director, Guggenheim has parted ways with his rebellious youth (he was fired from his first project). Now, he’s polished. It’s odd to describe a man who’s nearing mid-life with an Academy Award under his belt as “growing,” but the “Inconvenient Truth” director has fully embraced it. He’s coming into his own, he explains, after a long time.

“I don’t feel more confident, but I feel like I have more tools,” Guggenheim said. “There’s a feeling you get when you start a movie, like a pit in your stomach. You know when they work, when they don’t. Every time it’s like, ‘God, how am I going to pull this off again?’”

Out of the four documentaries he’s made thus far, Guggenheim admits that “‘Superman’” is his favorite. For one, “‘Superman”’ has demanded much more of him — both as a director and as a parent — than any other past project. The process was frequently exhaustive, involving collecting data, names and interviewing a number of sources.  Though Guggenheim had originally met with 20 families before cutting it down to the handful featured in the film — he said that choosing which families to feature was surprisingly unchallenging.

“You start with 20, knowing you’re going to end up with around five,” he explains. “[It wasn’t really hard] because 20 became seven really quickly.”

For Guggenheim, the deciding factor was how well families could captivate his — and the audience’s — attention.

“All the kids I met really cared,” he said, “But, you know, [when] you’re a journalist, sometimes you interview people and they’re boring or they’re not articulate.”

He pauses.

“Boring is too strong of a word. Don’t use boring. But when you make a movie, you want people to be able to express themselves.”

Though severing those ties was easy, Guggenheim has made it clear that he intends to follow the progression of each of the children who made it into the film, to help them achieve their dreams and assist them in any way possible.

For the youth of America whose hands he can’t hold through the uncertainty, he hopes his film can do what he can’t by forcing adults to act.

“You have to be able to ask tough questions, especially as a documentary,” he said. “There is a revolution happening. I’m more hopeful now. We have the ingredients for success.”

We can only hope. But for now, superman is going on holiday.

“I’m going to take a break and be a dad.”

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