Starving the Beast is an exposé on the evolving world of United States higher education—more specifically how the pressures of defunding public education in favor of more privatized alternatives have altered the educational landscapes of some of our nation’s most prestigious research and undergraduate universities. At first it seems that documentarian Steve Mims is going to approach the issue from an equally weighted, dual issue approach, as he interviews figures both in favor of free market accountability in education and for preserving present university cultures of a protected diversity of ideas. Yet it quickly becomes apparent where Mims stands on the issue, and a grueling exposé of corruption in politics and its impact on public university systems starts to take shape.
Mims exposes the suppression of university ideals of free thought and the pursuit of truth through a variety of mechanisms. He demonstrates the principle of disruptive innovation, the widespread belief that a long-standing, unchanging institution is doomed to fail regardless of any other evidence. He reveals the push to balance financial deficits by targeting universities in a direct cost-benefit analysis that measures professors based on their profitability. Most damning, though, is his spotlight on the billionaire influences that have bred a new wave of conservative politicians, whose goal is to turn public universities into job training facilities rather than avenues for free thought, expression, and research. It’s a disturbingly revealing look at the pressures that are warping the nation’s university systems into little more than factories that work against the interests of the students who partake in their services.
It’s somewhat unfortunate, then, that Mims doesn’t frame his documentary in a more engaging manner in order to bring his research to a wider audience. Relying on a minimum of narration, Mims focuses primarily on the words of his talking head interviewees. This at first makes his central thesis a bit muddied because it’s hard to tell which side of the argument he falls toward, but it is admittedly clever that he eventually uses the words of his political opponents to demonstrate points against them. However, since he relies so heavily on interview responses and monotonic delivery of statistics to get his points across, he doesn’t do much to encourage his audience to pay attention. The information presented is great and harrowing in its own right, so those with an interest in the issue are sure to get what they came for; the film just doesn’t do a whole lot to grab the attention of those who aren’t already invested.
So at the end of the day, Starving the Beast is a highly informative piece of filmmaking, but it isn’t an especially entertaining one. Steve Mims doesn’t seem to place a high priority on the capability of documentaries to entertain, which is fine assuming that the targeted audience already has some level of investment in the subject matter presented. It therefore feels like a missed opportunity that so many of the people directly impacted by this issue—the mass and multitude of students being abused by politicians and moneyed interests at the expense of their education—will likely opt not to sit through yet another boring lecture.