Fail State

In War and Peace, there’s a chapter where a doctor is called on to attend to one of the main characters, Natasha, who is deathly ill for no explainable reason. The doctor asks a lot of questions, runs some basic tests and then paces the room, deep in thought. In other words, he does absolutely nothing. Tolstoy writes, “How would the count have borne his dearly loved daughter’s illness had he not known that it was costing him a thousand rubles,” and then later, “What would the countess have done had she not been able sometimes to scold the invalid for not strictly obeying the doctor’s orders?”

My point for bringing this up is to spotlight the peace of mind that comes with throwing money at a problem and the illusion of progress that comes with handing the reins over to a theoretical professional. Simply replace the invalid with a student and the doctor with a college, and you have the fiction of higher education.

“…calls attention to a very particular kind of scam: for-profit colleges.”

But Fail State, directed by Alexander Shebanow, calls attention to a very particular kind of scam: for-profit colleges. You could also call them snake-oil colleges, as they entice people with fancy cufflinks, big smiles and, most importantly, lofty promises. These hucksters understand how easily influenced people can be by someone with answers – any answers will do, not necessarily the right ones – and how ready people are to hand over their money for results. You see this in all areas of commerce, such as instant weight loss products or creams that claim to give bald men a lion’s mane within days.

All of this information is useful, and the best way to fight these sorts of scams is to shine a light on them, as the documentary does, and hope they scurry away like cockroaches. Of course, this isn’t to say there might be a fair amount of ethical for-profit colleges out there. Or maybe not. I don’t know. The concept of getting practical training in a specific field seems like a solid one, and certainly preferable to sitting in an excessively lit room, half-listening to a lecture and staring into the abyss (when you stare long enough at the speckled ceiling tiles, the speckled ceiling tiles stare back).

“…the information the documentary doles out is useful and worth knowing.”

While most of the information the documentary doles out is useful and worth knowing, its presentation is lacking. Like an actual lecture from a professor, the movie is drab, perfunctory and you get the feeling that it’s regretting the Big Mac it just ate in its car. It makes repeated use of a number of cobwebby techniques, such as black title screens with text that dramatically fades in and lingering shots of abandoned swing sets. Even though giving the scams a human face is effective, there is an absurd number of cuts to the victims’ religious knick-knacks, which is intended to hit you over the head with “these are good people” until you’re delirious with empathy.

This is a shame because the ham-fisted approach undercuts the valuable information that makes up Fail State. You can get that information anywhere, but to package it into a documentary means to utilize the medium of film to shape the information in a captivating way not possible with the written word. Fail State doesn’t offer anything that a morning newspaper isn’t capable of with greater precision, and it doesn’t have Garfield waiting for you at the end of it. Nothing helps the misfortune of others go down easier than a misanthropic cat.   

Fail State (2018) Written and directed by Alexander Shebanow. Starring Gibson Frazier, Dick Durbin, Maxine Waters, Tom Petri, Gavin Newsom, Jack Conway, F. King Alexander, Murray Hastie, Jennifer Wilson, Luis Tayahua, Marquette Bascom, Zach Turner.

5 out of 10 stars

Leave a Reply

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