One of the most contentious and divisive issues in our country today is education—specifically, public K-12 education and the nature and effect of teachers’ unions.
Won’t Back Down is the most important movie you probably won’t see this year. Protests against the movie sprung up at the Hollywood premiere, as well as interrupting cast and filmmaker interviews during a national education summit hosted by NBC News. To make matters worse, the film is being dumped into theaters to compete against Rian Johnson’s highly anticipated sci-fi film Looper and the animated Hotel Transylvania starring Adam Sandler. There has also been an underwhelming amount of marketing for a film that deals with an issue so critical for our country’s future.
One of the most contentious and divisive issues in our country today is education—specifically, public K-12 education and the nature and effect of teachers’ unions. In Won’t Back Down, Adams Elementary is ground zero for the myriad problems plaguing public schools. Although very few students are reading at their grade level or able to perform the expected math problems, somehow these same students are passed along through the system all the way to graduation. One mother, Jamie Fitzpatrick (Maggie Gyllenhaal), is fed up with the apathetic teachers and uncooperative bureaucrats who aren’t doing anything to help her daughter’s severe dyslexia. When Jamie discovers a “failsafe trigger” law that would allow the teachers and parents to take over the school, she becomes determined to make it happen.
First, she must convince one of Adams’ teachers, Nona Alberts (Viola Davis), to get parents and other teachers on board with the idea. Nona is reluctant, though, because she is dealing with marital problems and her son’s own struggles with school. Michael Perry (Oscar Isaac) is one of the few teachers at Adams who engages the students, but he is not keen on the idea, since he is pro-union and Jamie’s plan would likely ban unions. Jamie also has to fight the Teachers Association of Pennsylvania (TAP) and their lead attack dog, Evelyn Riske (Holly Hunter), who is determined to make Jamie fail.
To say the film is a full-frontal assault on teachers’ unions and the evils of collective bargaining would be an understatement. In the same way the magnificent documentary Waiting for Superman did in 2010, Won’t Back Down exposes the hypocrisy and greed that dominates public schooling in our country and disguises itself as “teaching.” While the film is quite heavy handed and didactic, it raises many important issues that are too often neglected in public debate. The protests that have already occurred and are sure to continue are a good thing; perhaps many of the dark secrets of education will finally come to light.
Director Daniel Barnz struggles throughout the film with pacing and storytelling. Several storylines start and go nowhere, and a few more develop a little too easily. The movie progresses in a very uneven manner, moving forward quickly, then slowing, then powering forward again. Barnz and co-writer Brin Hill clearly have a lot to say, but the story tends to be subverted by the subject matter, and several characters become little more than archetypes of the person or position they are supposed to represent.
While Davis is typically wonderful to watch, here she seems to be pushing it a little bit, playing Nona with a little too much emotion and not enough intelligence. Nona acts only from the heart, and rarely lets her head make any decisions. Gyllenhaal gives another competent performance, but doesn’t demonstrate much growth as an actor.
Regardless of your political ideology or preconceived notions about education, you should see Won’t Back Down, if only to elucidate the true nature of what children are experiencing every day. | Matthew Newlin