Film and TV

The Cartel makes up for a lack of style and structure with stone cold facts

A union-busting doc with an adamant — if not quite apolitical — focus on the children slipping through the cracks, The Cartel uses New Jersey as Exhibit A in its case against this country's crooked education system. Though it is first in education spending, New Jersey has an abysmal dropout rate and equally dire testing scores; director Bob Bowdon cites what a former school superintendent calls "rampant, pervasive, institutionalized" budgetary corruption and a deeply entrenched, self-interested teachers' union as the culprits. Bowdon, a former local television reporter and anchorman, pulls together a familiar repertoire of talking heads, man-on-the-street interviews, remedial graphics and stilted B-roll, and this information-packed indictment ultimately plays like a feature-length "in-depth" news segment. Moving loosely from angle to angle — the tenure system, the plot against voucher programs, the stonewalling of charter schools — The Cartel makes up for what it lacks in style and structure with selective but stone-cold facts. Although a school-district president rolling up to a budgetary hearing in a white limo and an administration parking lot clogged with luxury cars are undeniably good gets, Bowdon's strength as a documentarian is more evident in the patience and logic with which he makes an argument for a state and a system in desperate need of reform.

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Michelle Orange is a regular film contributor at Voice Media Group and its film partner, the Village Voice. VMG publications include LA Weekly, Denver Westword, Phoenix New Times, Miami New Times, Houston Press and Dallas Observer.