Review: 'Won't Back Down' starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis
Won't Back Down isn't just a bad movie. It's a dangerously incompetent one that glosses over the very real problems with our public school system, choosing simplicity and demonizing over genuine answers. It's a shame to see a movie with such an obvious hatred for organized labor, in particular teachers unions, at a time when there's an organized movement to wipe out the labor movement altogether in this country. A manipulative and factually lazy film like this, which is otherwise well-made and well-acted, can do far more harm than good.
Dubiously based on a true story, Won't Back Down stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as Jaime Fitzpatrick, a struggling single mother living in one of Pittsburgh's poorest districts. As such, her dyslexic daughter is forced to attend a crappy public school that can't give her the proper attention. The teachers are blatantly lazy and unhelpful, safe and secure in their cozy, safe, and high paying union jobs. Because if there's one thing we know about teachers it's that they're lousy with extra cash. Determined to get her daughter out of there, she happens upon former teacher of the year Nona Alberts (Viola Davis), who has been defeated by a school system designed for roadblock. When Jaime asks her "Do you want to start a school with me?", Nona reluctantly agrees and their heroic journey to save the children begins.
Jaime discovers a "parent trigger" law that allows parents to essentially take over a failing school, but the process is slow moving and usually ends in failure. The teachers have to sign off on the move, and the film makes sure to highlight the reason why many don't is because they're greedy and entrenched with not a care in the world about the children. The reasons why the school is failing are never addressed, laid solely at the feet of the teachers, but if one really wants to see just how ideologically dishonest the film is they simply need to look at the actors themselves.
Gyllenhaal and Davis are a fantastic pair of actresses, and in their virtuous, hard-scrabble lives they are very clearly depicted as the heroes of this piece. We're meant to root for them and ignore everything else, forgetting about the details and the real gravity of the issue. On the other hand, the teachers union head is an oily, balding snake who does little more than screech and print fliers trashing the two women. There's a weak attempt at playing the middle ground with Holly Hunter as an idealistic union rep, but since she spends much of the film agonizing over how unions used to be she's basically just a backhanded compliment. The script co-written by director Daniel Barnz doesn't care about the growing culture of anti-intellectualism that is at the heart of our education system's problems. Do we hear a single thing about how a growing number of extreme ideologues have decided its best to sacrifice school funding in favor of giving tax cuts to those who don't need them? Balancing the budget by slashing education funding is a much larger issue than the few teachers who lack motivation.
Sadly, the kids take a back seat in favor of all this demonizing, and so too is the supporting cast wasted with subplots that go nowhere. Oscar Isaac, again showing off his obvious musical talents, plays a labor loving music teacher who Jaime enters into a contentious relationship with. Lance Reddick, best known for roles in The Wire and Fringe, plays Nona's husband who fights with her over the future of their son. It's nice to see Rosie Perez back in a high profile film again, but she isn't given much to work with.
The film reaches a rousing and expected conclusion, and audiences who ignore the details will probably leave in high spirits and confident in their kids' futures. But it's apparent from the very beginning that simply being a crowd-pleaser isn't the goal. As a substantive film that accurately and fairly gauges the complicated issues, Won't Back Down receives a failing grade.