Look, I get it. I know exactly where you’re coming from Won’t Back Down. I don’t know how some teachers have their jobs still, either, but man are you going about this the wrong way.
When I was in grade six, I was a troubled student, not because I was stuck in a public school that was going down the crapper, but because I hated my math teacher more than any other authority figure I had previously encountered. A man who drove a red Pontiac Fiero with ridiculously incongruous white fins on the back and a vanity plate that escapes me, he wandered into class everyday reeking like cheap, musky cologne dressed like James “Sonny” Crockett’s overcompensating younger brother and sporting the bad additude to match. If you didn’t hand in your homework under his intensely anal retentive formatting (a piece of blank paper, in pencil, measured out into a perfectly even number of sections marked by perfectly ruler drawn lines), you got kicked out of class. Accidentally say “one hundred AND fifty” instead of “one hundred fifty”? Kicked out of class. Ask for extra help? Get laughed at and mocked in front of the whole class.
His was the only class I ever purposely threw. He made me hate math for the rest of my life. Having him talk to my mother at a parent teacher conference the following year when he had the guts to ask if I was “still alive” was the icing on the cake. But of course, no one was going to fire of discipline him because he was terrifying to some people and he was already tenured and pretty much untouchable.
So yeah. I get it. But even as someone who still very clearly remembers one of the main issues at play in co-writer and director Daniel Barnz over the top, Oscar baiting, but undeniably compelling and almost bizarrely entertaining school reform drama, I would be hard pressed to find a more aggressively manipulative piece of anti-union propaganda out there. It’s about as right wing, unsubtle, and imbalanced as Sylvester Stallone’s Cobra was about the criminal justice system, just without people getting shot in the skull at point blank range. But that still doesn’t mean that it’s an awful movie. It’s almost as exciting to watch as an action film, but that probably wasn’t the intended effect.
In the gun metal blue filtered world of inner city Pittsburgh, Barnz shoots Adams Elementary Public School as a special kind of lackadaisical hell where some teachers would prefer texting in class than actually teaching. The few teachers that do care seem to have given up trying to change anything when a lone single mother (Maggie Gyllenhaal) decides to take action when her dyslexic daughter continues to be tormented by a system that doesn’t understand her. She tries to get her daughter into the local charter school “that NPR won’t stop buzzing about” via a lottery system, but they don’t get in despite the principal (Ving Rhames, so far over the top you couldn’t see the Earth from space) presenting his school as a Patrick Stump bumping model of efficiency and excellence. He’s all show and no heart.
Her cause is strengthened by a burgeoning friendship with a teacher at Adams who herself has a son with a learning disability who isn’t finding his needs are being met. This teacher is played by Viola Davis who flat out proves that she can sell just about anything someone puts in front of her. While Gyllenhaal tends to go a bit too far over the top in the idealist category (which really is just how the character’s written as a bit of an idealist), Davis grounds the movie with a layered performance of a women who isn’t so much fed up, but tired of being frustrated all the time. She knows she could be teaching in a better location and her marriage is failing, but helping to turn their school around becomes more than just a project for her. Davis alone makes the film worth seeing despite anything else I really say about it. She’s really just that good.
The dynamic duo propose to overthrow the school’s current administration by way of a legal loophole that states that parents can “take back the school” if enough people agree that there’s a problem and there needs to be a change. The problem arises, however, that such challenges to the status quo means throwing regulations put in place by the teacher’s union out the window. Regardless of tenure or standing, people can be fired at will, but the union and the school board have ensured that no one crazy enough to take this course of action would ever be able to make it through all the bureaucratic and procedural loopholes necessary to even get what will most likely be a fruitless hearing in front of a group of union stooges.
When the film sticks to the facts for the first hour and fifteen minutes or so, Won’t Back Down works quite nicely as an inspirational drama, but when the union becomes the biggest villain in the film things get problematic, one sided, needlessly cartoonish, and as it goes on, depressingly exploitative. The film teases that it’s going to talk about how unions can protect awful workers as much as they help the good ones, but there’s really only one awful teacher, sneering bureaucrats who should all have handlebar moustaches they can twirl constantly while tying kids to railroad tracks, and Barnz never once gives them a reason for acting like jerks aside from greed. There isn’t even an attempt to mediate on the part of the union – something that would almost absolutely happen in any sane and rational world – before they resort to character attacks, threats, and scare tactics against our heroes.
At one point, the head of the union flat out exclaims that he’ll start “giving a damn about the kids” when they start paying union dues. The teacher of Gyllenhaal’s daughter humiliates her in front of her classmates in one of the cruellest and ickiest ways possible. They even dredge up something from Davis’ past to discredit her at the last minute that would kill the character entirely if it had been played by a lesser actress. It doesn’t matter that only 2% of Adams graduates go to college or that 7 our of 10 of them can’t read at an appropriate level. THE UNION COMES FIRST YOU GUYS! But it’s okay that they all act like horror movie villains because they have Holly Hunter on hand as a union rep who remembers “how the unions used to be” when her parents implemented one at their factory jobs in North Carolina back in the day.
If there was any balance at all to what was being said, it would be much easier to take Won’t Back Down as a serious vehicle for change. Lottery systems in the states really are destroying the chances some kids get for an education. Resources are being cut to schools with little rhyme or reason, and yes, some unions including those with teachers do protect jobs that shouldn’t be protected. I would never position myself as an expert on the subject, but there’s no way that any rational thinking human being could actually buy the hard line being sold here. The problems are much deeper than “Unions are really greedy, you guys.” Barnz wallows in baseline misery set to a string section heavy score simply because it’s cinematic and wholly manipulative. The goal of the film is to do nothing more than to forward an extremely narrow point of view from only one side of the argument.
And in that respect, the film works as an almost unqualified success. It’s hard not to get caught up in the theatricality of it all. Barnz has crafted a great looking, stylish, and well paced bit of entertainment within the propaganda behind it. As a film, the film builds to a conclusion that feels like it has actual stakes regardless of what side of the political equation the viewer might come down on. It really does suck you in by the time the school board finale rolls around with the union dressed all in red (because, you know, Communism) and the school rights people dressed in green (save for Oscar Issac, playing Gyllenhaal’s love interest, a wavering yet beloved teacher, who wear a red flannel over his green tee), the film becomes a form of classical entertainment devoid of any manner of subtlety or nuance. It sure doesn’t hold back, living up to it’s confrontational title, and in that there’s something undeniably admirable and cathartic to watch.
Cast: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Holly Hunter, Oscar Isaac
Directed by: Daniel Barnz
Top image: A scene from Won’t Back Down. Courtesy 20th Century Fox.