Bad 25 Documentary Review Essays

Karman Willmer, left, and Shelby Messenger protest SB277, a measure requiring California schoolchildren to get vaccinated, at a rally last June in Sacramento.  (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

On its surface, the movie “Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe” appears to be a slickly produced scientific documentary with lots of charts and data about one of the most important issues of our time. The central premise of the film is that the country’s mandatory measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine — when given to children under age 2 — may be leading to an epidemic of autism diagnoses.

It contains heartbreaking footage of happy, laughing toddlers who, their parents say, became profoundly disabled almost overnight after receiving the shot. It explains the findings of a study that confirms the link and unearths recordings from a former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention scientist who purportedly claimed the government quashed findings of the connection.

The New York based Tribeca Film Festival pulled the controversial documentary "Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe" after public criticism. (Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)

But what the movie doesn’t get into is as compelling as what it does present. There are numerous facts, backstories and events that the filmmakers pretend didn’t happen that challenge many of the main points of the film. Here’s what you need to know to put “Vaxxed” into context:

1) The most important thing to know is that the link between vaccines and autism has been debunked — widely and repeatedly. The original study that raised the issue was published in 1998 in the journal the Lancet and involved 12 patients who, after receiving the MMR vaccine, suffered ill effects that appeared to be autism. While many researchers were skeptical of the finding, panicked parents in both Great Britain and the United States pushed vaccination rates down sharply. Outbreaks of the measles, mumps and rubella on both sides of the Atlantic soon followed.

In 2004, Sunday Times journalist Brian Deer reported serious ethical violations by the 1998 paper’s lead author, gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield. Deer accused Wakefield of having been paid by a law firm that had been planning to sue vaccine manufacturers and of subjecting some of the children to unnecessary, invasive procedures for the study. After the revelations, most of the researchers named as co-authors in the study disavowed the findings and withdrew their names from the paper. In 2010, the Lancet’s editors retracted the paper. Three months later, Britain’s General Medical Council revoked Wakefield’s medical license.

In 2011, the British medical journal the BMJ published a detailed investigation into the research, calling it an “elaborate fraud” by Wakefield and lamenting the harm it had caused and would continue to cause to the public health.

“It's one thing to have a bad study, a study full of error, and for the authors then to admit that they made errors,” BMJ editor-in-chief Fiona Godlee told CNN at the time. “But in this case, we have a very different picture of what seems to be a deliberate attempt to create an impression that there was a link by falsifying the data.”

2) The director of “Vaxxed” — and the main expert who appears on camera — is that same Andrew Wakefield.

The New York based Tribeca Film Festival pulled the controversial documentary "Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe" after public criticism. (Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)

3) Actor Robert De Niro, who has an autistic son, originally lobbied to put the film on the schedule for the Tribeca Film Festival in March. But several days later, he said he had a change of heart.

“My intent in screening this film was to provide an opportunity for conversation around an issue that is deeply personal to me and my family,” he said in a statement. “But after reviewing it over the past few days with the Tribeca Film Festival team and others from the scientific community, we do not believe it contributes to or furthers the discussion I had hoped for.”

[Robert De Niro accused of censorship after yanking anti-vaccine movie from film festival]

4) One of the main figures in the film, CDC scientist William Thompson, is heard only in voice recordings. Those recordings, the movie discloses, were of phone conversations Thompson had with another researcher who secretly recorded the calls. “Oh, my God. I cannot believe we did what we did. But we did,” Thompson says at one point, purportedly about omitting findings confirming a link between the MMR vaccine and autism from an official 2004 report.

Thompson has remained silent on the matter, but the other researcher, biologist Brian Hooker, has released a statement saying that Thompson would be publishing a paper soon that shows no link between the MMR vaccine and autism in African American males after all.

Hooker said he is “suspect of any analysis coming from the CDC due to the historic nature of the agency’s scientific misconduct and conflicts of interest specifically around any link between vaccines and autism.” He also detailed his conversations with Thompson:

Dr. William Thompson, senior scientist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) contacted me during 2013 and 2014 and shared many issues regarding fraud and malfeasance in the CDC, specifically regarding the link between neurodevelopmental disorders and childhood vaccines. Dr. Thompson and I spoke on the phone more than 40 times over a 10 month period and he shared thousands of pages of CDC documents with me. Eventually, Dr. Thompson turned this information over to Congress via Rep. Bill Posey of Florida.

5) While the issue of vaccines and autism still comes up regularly — as it did when presidential contender Donald Trump mentioned his belief in the theory in a debate last year — most scientists consider the connection between vaccines and autism to be discredited. Dozens of top journals — including the New England Journal of Medicine, the Journal of Pediatric Infectious Diseases and the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders — have published papers that looked into a possible link and found none.

A study in JAMA in April 2015 was one of the largest; it involved an analysis of 96,000 children. The authors wrote that their findings “indicate no harmful association between MMR vaccine receipt and [autism spectrum disorder] even among children already at higher risk.”

[The origins of Donald Trump’s autism/vaccine theory and how it was completely debunked eons ago]

6) While experts still don't know what causes autism, it is thought to be a combination of genetic and environmental factors such as infections or exposure to certain chemicals that may lead to differences in the shape and structure of a child’s brain. According to an estimate by the CDC published last year, 1 in 45 (or 2.24 percent) of children age 3 to 17 may have autism — a steep rise over the past few decades. Researchers have theorized that part of the rise could be attributable to a greater awareness of the condition. The CDC said the most recent jump from 2011 to 2014 may have a very mundane reason behind it: a change in the questionnaire the agency uses to track cases.

[Autism cases in U.S. jump to 1 in 45: Who gets the diagnosis, in 8 simple charts]

7) Movie critics have come out with very different takes on the film. The San Francisco Chronicle’s Mick LaSalle appeared to be moved by the footage and personal stories of the children and their parents. “Of course, it’s possible that the children would have developed autism anyway, and that one event didn’t cause the other. But the parents presented here are convinced otherwise,” he wrote. While acknowledging that the film “doesn't contain the whole story,” LaSalle called it “a passionate advocate for its viewpoint ... that makes for compelling viewing.”

Other reviewers weren’t so generous. The Washington Post’s Michael O’Sullivan called it “closer to horror film than documentary.” Stat’s Rebecca Robbins commented on the film’s “paranoid tone.” The Age’s Sarah Gill warned: “Don't be fooled — Wakefield's story is not the tale of a man wronged by powerful corporations or the medical establishment, which, in fact, closed ranks to protect him. It’s the story of a physician who set out to cast doubt on vaccine safety before he’d even gathered the evidence, and he did so not for the public good, but for private gain.”

Read more:

Controversial study aims to ‘reanimate’ the brain dead

IN DEPTH: Sean Parker, Silicon Valley’s bad boy genius, wants to kick the *!$% out of cancer

$250 million, 300 scientists and 40 labs: Sean Parker’s revolutionary project to ‘solve’ cancer

There’s a new sheriff in town in Silicon Valley — the FDA

Researchers: Medical errors now third leading cause of death in United States

Like our Health & Wellness page on Facebook for more science news about the ins and outs of the human body and mind, essays and advice. You can sign up here for our newsletter.

A teacher reviews “Waiting for Superman”

May 25th, 2011

We know many teachers who have avoided watching the documentary Waiting for Superman because of what they’ve heard about the film’s view of public school teachers. We asked teacher educator Maureen Barbieri for her thoughts about the film and the messages it sends. After working as a teacher, principal, and literacy coach for many years, Maureen currently teaches literacy courses at the University of New Hampshire, volunteers at a local elementary school, and takes care of two young grandchildren every week.  This is the first in a series of blog posts by Maureen.

Too many of our inner city students are not thriving in school.  So along comes Waiting for Superman, a compelling documentary produced by Davis Guggenheim, to raise the question: “What is our obligation to other people’s children?” The film is an indictment of the public school system with particular criticism aimed at teachers’ unions, the villains of the piece.  Heralded as “inspiring” and “one of the best films of the year,” it left me heartsick. The movie is slick and manipulative, advocating a school reform agenda that pushes charter schools and “teacher accountability” tied to students’ standardized test scores.

Guggenheim deserves credit for shining a light on education, but his solutions are simplistic and ignore the fact that societal inequities are more powerful than any force teachers can bring to bear in schools.  The pedagogy of rote learning, endorsed in the film, is one that many contemporary educators have abandoned in favor of a more student-centered approach that recognizes that knowledge is a process of coming to understand, connecting new information to previously held concepts.

Waiting for Superman casts a rosy glow on Geoffrey Canada, founding principal of Harlem Success Academy, who narrates a short cartoon in which a teacher walks from student to student, opening heads and pouring something from a pitcher.  “It should be simple,” he says. “A teacher filling her students’ heads with knowledge and sending them on their way.  But we’ve made it complicated.” This feels like a leap back into the past; what we really want is students who are much more active participants in their own learning.

Waiting for Superman accuses teachers’ unions of being the monkey wrench in school reform.  If only we could torpedo teacher tenure and move to merit pay, insists the film’s other star, Michelle Rhee, everything would improve.  Rhee, former chancellor of the Washington, D.C. schools, closed 23 schools in one year and offered teachers huge salary increases, if they would agree to forfeit tenure.  Now she travels around the country advancing the idea that unions are the enemy of school reform, and she has been persuasive.  She is not alone in her disdain for the unions, as we have seen in Wisconsin, Ohio, and New Hampshire, where some people place blame on unions for everything from low test scores to budget deficits.

In New York City today, teachers applying for tenure go through a rigorous process of compiling a portfolio, securing letters of endorsement, and being observed and interviewed.  The vast majority of teachers I’ve known over the past 28 years, twelve spent in New York City as a literacy coach, principal, and university instructor, have been conscientious in their commitment to students, something the film ignores.  Teachers do not seek job security at the expense of students’ welfare, as Rhee asserts; they seek to be treated as professionals.

These issues are complex and it won’t be a “superman” who will address them.  The film’s melodramatic portrayal of moms too poor to pay Catholic school tuition, its blanket condemnation of unions, and its presentation of dubious statistics will do little to help. Other, more constructive, ideas abound.

For every dedicated educator shown in the film who is working at a charter or private schools in New York, there are thousands of equally committed and creative teachers working within the public school system. In addition to being excellent teachers in the classroom, they devote hours of free time to their students beyond the school day. I am thinking about two young teachers from IS 131 in New York’s Chinatown who spent their Saturdays taking immigrant kids on walks around the city, encouraging them to make observations, ask questions, and wonder about the implications of what they had seen.  I’m remembering the year a science teacher and I took a group of eighth grade “feisty females” to art museums, cafes, and bookstores every Friday after school. I’m thinking about a fifth grade teacher at PS 11 in Chelsea who designed and implemented a social justice curriculum requiring children to observe and write about what was unfair in their communities and then develop action plans to make changes.

These days I get emails from former NYU students, telling tales of being compelled to follow scripted reading programs. They’re dismayed at the lack of value placed on the teaching of writing and at the obsession with test scores.  They love working with students, but they are disheartened to have such little voice in what happens in their classrooms.  Several have left in frustration already, pursuing journalism or law careers.  Among my current students at UNH there is a sense of foreboding where there was once a sense of joy.  They lament the lack of respect for teachers in the media and among the general public, and they are uneasy about their futures.  I worry that they will lose heart.

Waiting for Superman shows little respect for teachers’ intelligence, integrity, or creativity. Unless we can counter this mind-set, we can anticipate that talented teachers will leave the profession and smart young college students will make other career choices.  The stakes are too high here to allow the nation’s attention to be hijacked by such a narrow, simplistic agenda as the film advances.  Other voices are sorely needed in this conversation: the voices of thinkers like Diane Ravitch, Alfie Kohn, and Linda Darling Hammond; the voices of families whose children are thriving in many types of schools; and, most of all, the voices of teachers who know better than anyone else what it means to work and learn and think alongside other people’s children.

For more information about the issues raised by Waiting for Superman—and the reality behind them– check out these links:

  • Diane Ravitch looks at the reality behind the schools and reforms profiled in the film in her review in the New York Times Review of Books.
  • The Grassroots Education Movement of New York has just released a documentary challenging the picture of public education portrayed in the Guggenheim film.
  • “Good teaching alone can’t overcome the many obstacles” students face when they are not in school writes Joe Nocera in a recent column in the NY Times.
  • Alfie Kohn takes school reformers to task for advocating what he calls “poor teaching for poor children” in this recent commentary in Education Week.

Entry Filed under: Questions & Authors

0 thoughts on “Bad 25 Documentary Review Essays

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *