Film Review: Ivory Tower (★1/2)

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Is college worth the cost? Seriously, I’m asking for a friend.

“Is college worth the cost?” is the semi-subtitle of Andrew Rossi’s padded and uneven documentary, Ivory Tower. The film presents this question as just that—a question. But it never goes so far as to answer it. Rather, it uses this query as the foundation to its entire narrative. Instead of confronting the question with the possibility of “yes” being the answer, the film seemingly begins with the assumption that college is not worth the cost. The central question is used as support to answer the question.

The film’s topic, the bloated price of higher education in America is a salient issue. And an indictment of this documentary is not a disagreement with the serious issue the film seeks to expose. College IS too expensive, but that doesn’t mean that fact in and of itself makes for compelling filmmaking. It fancies itself an exposé, when it’s mostly just as tame a tepid water.

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Ivory Tower is directed by Rossi as if Rossi has a remote control in his hand. He’s channel serfing. If something gets too boring or cannot be easily tied up in a “see this proves my point” moment, he changes the channel. Occasionally, he’ll come back to a channel that had something interesting on it, such as the Cooper student movement. However, this disjointed narrative storytelling fails to build upon itself. Rather, the film continues to move sideways, which prevents any sort of climax or rising or falling action.

The stage is set in a series of vignettes: we begin with Harvard and do little with it, then we move to how terrible party schools are, then we move to the issue of student debt, then the Cooper Institution, then the woes of online classes. The film dips its toe in so many different arguments as to WHY higher education is too costly, but never fully submerges itself into one. And perhaps that’s the issue—the film THINKS it’s fully submerged. It tosses us brief, fleetingly compelling arguments and then moves away from them before we can think too critically. It seems to be saying “hey, this argument makes colleges look bad,” “hey so does this,” and “now look over here—kids are partying!”

Perhaps that’s the biggest disservice of the film. It has a very smart and salient point to make—but it never makes it nor does it ever find a foundation or basis for it. College is too expensive. Duh. But is it too expensive because of partying? No. Is it bad that college is too expensive? Probably. But why not support that supposition with evidence, with interviews. Instead, we get a brief vignette of college dropouts turned start-ups in San Francisco. Where are the students who were priced out of college? The film continues to imply there’s a growing GAP in something, but never presents us with the gap, either in the form of predictive evidence or first-hand interviews. It posits “this s bad, therefore it must be the worst thing ever” but never gives us the other side of the coin—a student who didn’t go to college and doesn’t have debt—what’s their life like?—is it as grand as the film implies? It’s essentially just saying “hey, this is gonna be bad, but you’ll have to take our word for it!”

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A documentary that fails to present counterarguments is always subject to an eyebrow raise or two. Without specifically noting, Ivory Tower seems to focus exclusively on liberal arts. Never once does it mention how frequently employed STEM students are. Indeed, for its slight shade on “a master’s degree,” where are the animated graphs showing employment for medical or law school graduates? Even what type of college education the film focuses on isn’t focused. It treats any and all education as one and the same.

I understand a film ought not be criticized on the basis of what I wish it had done. And in fact, I’m not doing that here. Rather, the film raises questions that it fails to answer, and therefore, I’m left with questions.

In the end, Ivory Tower is a film that puts the cart before the horse. At one point, a talking head notes that having highly paid college administrators was like “the tail wagging the dog.” Indeed, the fact that Ivory Tower continues to assume its central argument is pre-proven is the film’s tagline wagging the film. How I wish we’d have an actual investigatory and/or scathing documentary about ballooning college costs and the cause and effects thereof. And yet, it’s simply not here. All we have are a series of “doesn’t this look bad, huh”s.

Check out the trailer for Ivory Tower below: