REVIEW: Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis lend star power to a politically charged movie about corrupt union schoolteachers.
"Won't Back Down" is to school reform what "Reefer Madness" is to drug policy. The difference is that it features the best acting talent money can buy, with Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis as a fed-up parent and an idealistic educator who take control of their failing Pittsburgh grade school and transform it.
They play the heartstrings like Yo-Yo Ma in service of a story that is emotionally manipulative, dramatically crude, factually challenged hero/villain hokum. That describes about 81 percent of all movies, but when a film's goal is to move public policy, it's worth commenting on.
Adams Elementary is a dreadful inner-city school. The problem isn't staff and program cuts, lack of air conditioning, kids who come to school tired and hungry, or speaking English as a second language. The problem is Bad Union Teachers.
With some exceptions, the teachers in "Won't Back Down" are sullen, browbeating ogres. The principal insists that they fake attendance reports so their illiterate students can be pushed like cattle into the next grade. This misbehavior occurs with the connivance of haughty, charmless teachers' union representatives.
There are a couple of pro-labor teachers in the mix, physically attractive, student-loving souls who realize the error of their ways and end up on the side of charter schools and virtue.
Oscar Isaac plays such a character, falling in love with Gyllenhaal after she persuades him to give up his job security and just hope for the best, like she does.
It is not a spoiler to reveal that Adams becomes a bastion of eager learners and high achievement. Gyllenhaal's adorable dyslexic daughter miraculously conquers her disability at the fade-out.
A notice at the start tells us it is "Inspired by True Events." A good teacher would red-pen "Citation needed" there, because it's all made up.
The film describes an event that has never occurred anywhere in the United States. School privatization is a hot-button issue for the film's producer, Philip Anschutz, the Denver billionaire who Fortune has called America's "greediest executive."
Anschutz also backed the one-sided documentary "Waiting for Superman." What neither of his films tells viewers is the bothersome fact that only 17 percent of charter schools outperform their public counterparts. That's despite generous philanthropic help and a self-selected student body of the most motivated and ambitious families. According to 2009's federally funded National Assessment of Educational Progress, 83 percent of charters perform at or below public-school standards, which suggests that the problems they face are not a matter of recalcitrant unions after all.
The film has more than a few amusing passages of the head-slap variety. My favorite is when Davis challenges an assembly of wavering teachers to work without assurance of continued employment. Blazing with righteousness, she castigates them for their greed. Yeah, that sweet $30,000 national average starting salary must explain all the new 7-series BMWs and blinged-out Hummers I see every day when I pass the Field School faculty parking lot. I wonder how they all got that rich? I guess like the heroes of this film, they banded together and fought for what they thought they deserved.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186