Won’t Back Down (2012) – Written By Brin Hill and Daniel Barnz; Directed by Daniel Barnz; Starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Holly Hunter, and Ving Rhames. Rated PG for mild language and for showing close ups of union thugs and government schools.
I know I’m late to the party on this one, but I feel a moral obligation to register a strong endorsement of this film. And it’s coming from more than just the fact that this is a worthy film for families to enjoy and by which to be inspired. My cathartic need to write a positive review here originates in the fact that Won’t Back Down comes from Walden Pictures whose library of costly, well-intentioned, but generally, sloppy offerings I have skewered hard over the last decade. Walden’s projects have chronically, and one has to conclude, stubbornly, failed on the script and story level, such that, from the once lofty goal of being the new healthier Disney, their library represents mostly one big waste of Phil Anschutz’s money and the global audience’s time. (The first Narnia movie was the happy exception, but in light of their subsequent messes, one has to attribute the success of that piece to the real Disney’s intervention.) But the people at the head of Walden are good people, just terribly over their heads as movie makers who could translate classic literature to the screen. So, I am very happy to finally be able to strongly recommend a Walden Picture as getting close to what they have been hoping for all along: Won’t Back Down is a good, solid night of entertainment that is also good for the world.
The story begins with a teacher, Nona Alberts, played engagingly by the talented Viola Davis, who has lost all her passion and idealism for her profession. Her life as a walking dead teacher is the sad result of two decades of having the life and hope sucked out of her by the broken government school-teacher’s union system. Nona and her friends in the teachers’ lounge are deeply cynical as regards the worst teacher in the school getting paid the most because of union seniority, and also by being forced to inflate grades by the bureaucratic school administrators. Their school is broken in every way, but no one even dares dream of a way out of a mess that has been – how many years since LBJ’s Great Society? – five decades in the making.
Nona’s come-like existence is shattered when a desperate, passionate mother of a special needs child careens into the school as a one person inciting incident to launch an impossible reform. Maggie Gyllenhall’s, Jamie Fitzpatrick, is a street-wise, apolitical, empathetic firebrand, whose commitment to her daughter is her principle moral pole. She sees no way out of the broken school system, so idealistically throws herself into fixing the school fast – now! – while her daughter’s future is still in the balance. Jamie provides the enthusiasm and footwork and Nona the brain work in galvanizing the local community to take over the school and remake it from the ground up. It’s a movie with an exhilerating triumph at the end that brought tears to my eyes and cheers from the CA audience in the theater with me.
Despite the movie’s studied and insultingly repetitive efforts to assert that “UNIONS ARE REALLY GOOD FOR US!!!!!,” the story’s twists and subtext deliver a whole other impression. The dark dragon sending up its black smoke of dysfunction and failure into the government school is the corrupt, completely self-serving teacher’s union. The movie shows the union leaders as immediately hostile to the women’s crusade. The president of the union gives several stock dismissals of the school’s problems, and at one point makes the astonishing statement, “The day kids start paying union dues, we’ll fight for them. But for now, we fight for our members!” That line earned audible growls from the people sitting in the theater as did much of the systemic public education brokenness that the film catalogues. As the story progresses, the union resorts to bribery, black-balling, calumny, slander and out and out thuggery in their efforts to suppress the parent/teacher-led movement to reform the school. The union does all this while loudly claiming the high ground as the protector of America’s workers. It makes you mad.
Still, it was almost funny how many times the movie strains to say that “Nobody here is anti-union!” Clearly, somebody at the production company was worried that, “If we actually name the dragon in the basement, the NY Times movie review will not be kind.” And the producers were right as the mainstream reviews of the movie have been far, far too unkind. The truth is it takes a lot of courage to take on the power of the corrupt unions. It takes tremendous courage to note that the problem in the government schools comes down to teachers in a losing fight with their own insane union. Ask Gov. Walker in WI. The truth is, this movie is good. It is the power-mad teacher’s unions who are bad.
Also bad in the piece are the government schools themselves. Loaded with the kind of bureaucratic absurdity, red-tape, and decay that makes the DMV such a glory and joy, the government schools can never get their heads out of their figurative asses – procedures and policies! – long enough to even notice that they are damnably failing the children they should be serving.
Therein lies the wonderful paradox that makes Won’t Back Down riveting as a story. The government schools and teachers unions are so busy serving themselves that they have forgotten that they exist to serve the society’s children. It’s so skewed and horrific that it is as fascinating to watch as a snake eating itself.
The film has a nice transformational arc in Nona’s journey back to passion and excellence. There are believable and engaging performances by all the main cast, and most notably Gyllenhall and Viola Davis. Holly Hunter does a competent if pained job of playing the teacher’s union rep who finally sees the light. The story move well and, while it does over-sentimentalize in places, it carries a story of hope, that change is possible even in a place as dark as a union-controlled, urban government school.
I recommend the movie as cathartic for any one who is sick of what the out of control unions and their leveling, mediocrity have done to our schools and municipalities. I recommend it as resistance literature for anyone who wonders if they could take on a deeply entrenched broken system anywhere. Won’t Back Down says authoritatively that where there is love, there is passion, and where there is passion there is energy and commitment, and where there is energy and commitment, there is hope. Hearty recommendation. Good job, Walden! (Please, don’t make me wait another ten years to say it again!)