What’s supposed to be a charming, compelling movie that tugs at heart-strings and delivers the message that teacher’s unions are bad is instead dull, heavy-handed, and uninvolving, according to critics. In this movie, parents and teachers unite, and voila! The result is always and only a charter school.
“Won’t Back Down” isn’t passing the low bar of being at least mildly entertaining, nor is it an effective propaganda piece for the “parent tricker” law that started in California. The law allows disgruntled parents to use a majority vote to hand over an “underachieving” public school to private charter school operators (never an in-district, fully public option). Once transferred out of the public trust, the school never returns to public administration despite being subsidized by taxpayers. The “trigger” law has spread to several other states with the help of right-wing corporate lobbyists, but movie audiences who don’t stand to profit from specially-written bills favoring school privatization may not have gotten the message.
“Won’t Back Down” also suffers from the supreme bad timing of arriving on the heels of a successful Chicago Teacher’s Union strike in which teachers were not ogres demanding classroom barcaloungers and newspapers they could read in the faces of their students, but instead demanded and won sensible, lovely things for Chicago public school children like more art and music classes, libraries, and classrooms that were not leaking during rainstorms or lacking air conditioning during hundred-degree days.
Here’s a round-up of the best reviews of “Won’t Back Down”, complete with piercing excerpts:
The hot-button issue of public school reform gets unsubtle treatment in this pedestrian and insultingly tendentious drama.
This poor film is so shamelessly manipulative and hopelessly bogus it will make you bite your tongue in regret and despair.
Most people still understand, I believe, that teachers work extremely hard for little pay and low social status in a thankless, no-win situation. But this is one of those areas where conservatives have been extremely successful in dividing the working class, which is precisely the agenda in “Won’t Back Down.” Breeding hostility to unions in themselves, and occasionally insinuating that unionized teachers are a protected caste of incompetents who get three damn months off every single year, has been an effective tactic in what we might call postmodern Republican populism, especially in recent battles over public employee contracts in Wisconsin and elsewhere. It works something like this: 1) Turn the resentment and frustration of people like Jamie – people with crappy service-sector jobs and few benefits, whose kids are stuck in failing schools – against the declining group of public employees who still have a decent deal. 2) Strip away job security and collective bargaining; hand out beer and ukuleles instead. 3) La la la la, tax cuts, tax cuts, I can’t hear you!
…Walden Media, is linked at the highest levels to the real-world adult alliance of corporate and far-right ideological interest groups that constitutes the so-called education reform movement, more accurately described as the education privatization movement. The third thing, and the one most likely to be passed over in the debate surrounding “Won’t Back Down” (reviewed here, and not kindly, by Salon’s own Andrew O’Hehir), is that Walden Media is itself an educational content company with a commercial interest in expanding private-sector access to American K-12 education, or what Rupert Murdoch, Walden’s distribution partner on “Won’t Back Down,” lip-lickingly calls “a $500 billion sector in the U.S. alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed.”
Despite scapegoating teachers’ unions, Won’t Back Down is not an anti-teacher movie. Most of the teacher characters—especially Nona, played by Viola Davis—are heroic. That’s because one of the film’s messages is that busting teachers’ unions is better for teachers. In one scene, a meeting to discuss the possible takeover, Nona argues that losing the union will be worth it, “because we’ll be able to teach the way we want.” (The movie is vague on Nona’s pedagogy and why the union prevents it. In real life, charter teachers certainly don’t have any more control over curriculum than public school teachers do.) It is a ruling-class wet dream: workers who are happy to help destroy their own institutions. By giving up the organization through which they wield power, the fictional teachers reason, they will gain more power.
For Angie Sullivan, a 24-year veteran of public schools, including 12 years in the Clark County, those who watch the movie will blame teachers and their unions rather than funding or other issues. She disputes nearly all of the characterizations of unionized teachers presented in Won’t Back Down.
Sullivan said she and her colleagues, contrary to the movie, routinely put in 60 hours a week. She often arrives at her at-risk elementary school, Jesse D. Scott Elementary, before 6 a.m. and stays until after 6 p.m. — plus takes work home.
“Are people going to realize that this is a work of fiction?” Sullivan, who did not attend the screening, asked. “I think they’re going to get stirred up and want to get rid of their public schools. We’re just being demonized.”
Given the disingenuous way in which this lumbering movie pushes obvious buttons and manipulates the audience’s emotional investment while conveniently skimming the issues, it’s a mystery how some of these [actors] got roped in.
Following her breakout work in “The Help,” this is a particularly unhappy use of Davis’ considerable talents. Hunter also is too smart an actor to be stuck playing the transparent construct of a compromised Norma Rae. Lance Reddick (The Wire) is given an entirely thankless role as Nona’s businesslike departing husband, while Ving Rhames is on hand literally to deliver a speech as principal of the exemplary Rosa Parks Elementary School during a lottery draw for new students.
That scene is one of many such preachy interludes in a dumbed-down agenda film that veers shamelessly between didacticism and soap.
Indeed, like Waiting for “Superman,” the last school reform film financed by Walden Media, which is owned by conservative entrepreneur Phil Anschutz, Won’t Back Down depicts urban poverty in deceptive ways—not only as less exhausting than it really is but also as less deep-seated. When one police officer mom warns the reformers that a school takeover can’t solve the neighborhood’s underlying problems, like gangs and drugs, Nona intones, “You change a school, you change a neighborhood.” This claim is misleading. As an education reporter, I’ve visited many urban schools that are beacons of hope in troubled neighborhoods, but no school can find decent jobs for under- or unemployed parents who can’t put nutritious food on the table; nor can a school make up for the chronic instability of a young life spent in foster care or moving from apartment to apartment in a futile quest for safe, affordable housing. Volumes of research show such experiences affect cognitive development and children’s ability to focus in school; dedicated educators and counselors work wonders with such children each day, but they don’t rescue neighborhoods from poverty.
Not all the important players appear onscreen, however. A report published by the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation discusses the political and financial ties of Won’t Back Down‘s backers, including News Corporation mogul Rupert Murdoch and billionaire conservative Christian activist Philip Anschutz — the latter a financial supporter of Colorado’s Amendment 2, a 1992 forerunner of the legislative effort that overturned Nashville’s anti-discrimination ordinance protecting GLBT employees.
The report also examines their motive in making the film: To promote “parent trigger” laws that enable parents to vote to turn over autonomy of their children’s failing public schools to privately operated, for-profit charter organizations — without interference from democratically elected local school boards. It passes along this tidbit:
“In an audio clip published by the Nation in October 2010, anti-union consultant Richard Berman reflected on the best strategies for pushing forward private education reforms. If we can’t ‘intellectualize ourselves into the [education reform] debate…we need to hit on fear and anger,’ Berman explained. ‘Because fear and anger stays with people longer. And how you get the fear and anger is by reframing the problem.'”
…nuance and reason that fall by the wayside amid the sloganeering rhetoric of Won’t Back Down. Like most large institutions with interests to protect, the unions could use some reforms, especially when it comes to shielding bad teachers from scrutiny and discipline.
But if you were to wave a magic wand that replaced unions and bureaucrats with a rainbow coalition of local parents and educators coming together to create the kind of school they want, the result would be chaos, not to mention an end to the tattered remains of our common culture.
“We need to start somewhere,” comes a stern, God-like voice in Won’t Back Down, waving off all talk about the role of poverty and inequality in under-resourced schools and underachieving pupils. We do indeed. Just not here.
For every nuanced, touching moment, Won’t Back Down throws a dozen broad, cartoonish ones at you: The bad teachers are comically inept, the union bosses almost supernaturally manipulative. Occasional attempts at balance, mostly in the form of speeches recalling the glory days of the union movement, are spaced as mechanically and predictably as a class schedule. You might as well hear bells announcing each one.
The real problem with Won’t Back Down is that it ping-pongs between tonal extremes and never manages to settle into a groove. It mixes attempts at realism and grit with transparently Hollywoodized good guys-vs.-bad guys social melodrama. That requires a deft directorial hand, but director Daniel Barnz doesn’t seem to have it.
…Won’t Back Down has neither the contextual detail nor the stylistic panache to sell its cloying, wish-fulfillment narrative. It can’t decide what it wants to be, so it settles for nothing.
…heavy-handed lectures disguised as art.
Really, though, the plot is just a clothesline on which to hang an unabashedly biased diatribe. Director Daniel Barnz and his co-writer, Brin Hill, offer us carefully-chosen platitudes, beatific heroines pitted against cartoonish union villains and absurdly one-sided talking points. Every so often, they remember they’re writing a movie and not attending a debate, so they’ll shove in a rushed romance, or an out-of-nowhere personal revelation.
If “The Simpsons” has taught us anything, it is that pious expressions of concern for “the children” are usually evidence of a political agenda in overdrive. “Won’t Back Down,” a new schoolhouse melodrama starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis, presents an especially blatant example of this rule. A movie that insists, repeatedly and at high volume, that “it’s all about the kids” might just cause you to wonder what else it is about, and this one is not shy about showing its ideological hand.
If you’ve made it this far, skip “Won’t Back Down” and see “Brooklyn Castle” instead! The real villain of “Brooklyn Castle,” a documentary about a winning chess team from a middle school serving kids from low-income families, is poverty and chronic underfunding.