Out of Frame: The Cartel
There's something wrong with America's education system, and filmmaker Bob Bowden starts his new documentary, The Cartel, examining the roots and potential solution to those problems like any good doctor, first attempting to diagnose and define the problem. His findings — that our reading and math scores are abysmal, and our dropout rates staggering — come as no surprise, but it's a necessary setup for his task of finding out why this is the case, and what can be done about it.
New Jersey spends more than any other state on education, and Bowden uses them as a representative sample for the nation, showing the reasons why simply throwing money into the system is no guarantee of better results. With teacher salaries making up only a fraction of the cost per classroom, he demonstrates how more money doesn't always mean more money for teachers, and effectively outlines how wasteful administrative practices in the Garden State waste billions that could be helping kids. It's a strong and compelling start.
By the time he's gotten past administrative waste, and into political corruption, tenure, unions, and patronage, he's painted a rage-inducing picture of systemic injustice, a "cartel" of politics and money that is destroying the chances of a young generation of Americans at getting the education to which they have a right. It's mostly a strong case, at least as far as Jersey goes. Unfortunately, he's rarely able to argue effectively for the universality of many issues. In fact, on a number of occasions, he goes out of his way to show how problems he's outlining are unique to New Jersey. Without a case for the universality of these problems, it's hard to argue for a cure-all solution. Nevertheless, he makes that leap, spending most of the rest of the movie touting vouchers and school choice as the answer to all of our problems.
But this amateurish, ultimately poorly argued documentary isn't likely to convert many of those on the fence. And proponents of vouchers will want to think twice before choosing this film as the champion of their cause.
Bowden began his career as a television journalist, and while that means he knows his way around a camera and an interview microphone, it doesn't translate into making him an effective documentarian. The Cartel plays like a 5-minute local news report stretched out to an interminable hour and a half -- only with poorer image quality, graphics, editing, and sound than you'd expect from a small town affiliate. Al Gore and Davis Guggenheim may have been criticized for turning a PowerPoint presentation into a documentary with An Inconvenient Truth, but after an hour of Bowden's lo-fi graphics and endless camera shots of news sites brought up in web browsers, you'll find yourself wishing he knew how to use something as professional-looking as PowerPoint.
Still, that's just the presentation. If the arguments are sound, we can overlook amateur aesthetics, right? But after a promising start with his harsh critique of administrative waste, Bowden's obvious and admirable passion is betrayed by a one-sided argumentativeness that falls prey to the worst aspects of advocacy docs from both left and right. The smug, condescending tone he takes with regard to opponents had me longing for the manufactured faux-naïvete of Michael Moore. Bowden leads his audience carefully down a walled path that can only lead to the conclusion he's chosen. There's little room for alternate perspectives here, and when he does include them, more often than not he skips interviews in favor of presenting his interpretation of those alternate perspectives, in his own words. It's easy to win a debate when you're presenting the opposition's argument for them.
He does offer some balance, in one section on charter schools, when he allows for the fact that there are sometimes charter programs that end up performing even worse than their public counterparts. In the Newark charter school he uses as his example, he rationalizes that even if the kids have worse reading skills than those at the gang-ridden public school, at least they're safer here. Which is cold comfort when only 21 percent of the students at the school have basic reading proficiency.
What Bowden ends up implying is that if it's a choice between a good education and a bad education, choose the good education. If it's a choice between a bad education and a worse education where your kid is less likely to get shot, go for the worse, safer education. But are those really the only options? While it seems like the issue must be more complex than what Bowdon is willing to put on screen, that kind of complexity threatens to complicate the simple binaries of his approach, and therefore has no place here.
Bowden obviously cares about these kids (even if a scene depicting the heartbreaking exercise that is a charter school lottery feels uncomfortably exploitative), but does none of them a service with this film. Like so many advocacy documentaries, the director takes his own opinion as such incontrovertible gospel that his film can't do anything but preach — and preach badly — to the choir.