In The Face Of Controversy, "Won't Back Down" Soars

“Won’t Back Down” is a profoundly surprising and powerful film, one that’s certain to provoke strong reactions from audiences. On its face, it’s something of a cinematic flashbang lobbed at teachers’ unions, but the film smartly stays as apolitical as possible in its case against bad teachers and the institutions that protect them. Issue-driven dramas can fall victim to over-sentimentality, and “Wont Back Down” does on occasion. In the hands of less capable actors, these characters might seem stale through all their “never give up” sermonizing and forlorn hand wringing. But director Daniel Barnz and his A-list cast rise to the occasion and squeeze every bit of emotion and depth out of a utilitarian screenplay.

Addressing the film without relaying its politics would be irresponsible, and likely impossible. The film is effective as a simple human drama, but 20th Century Fox’s ace in the hole is the “school choice” issue. Fox and Walden Media have “firestorm” media potential on their hands – anytime five (five!) Oscar-nominees act in a movie in which the villains are teachers’ union reps, it’s going to ruffle a few feathers. Conservatives will embrace the piece on principle, but many independents and liberals who aren’t concerned with toeing party lines will also be on board. In the end, the message is that providing the best possible education for kids isn’t a political issue at all, and the filmmakers make their point loud and clear.

The wonderful Maggie Gyllenhaal stars as Jamie, a single mom living in Pittsburgh, whose dyslexic daughter, Malia, is struggling in school. The film opens on a chaotic classroom in which the teacher is fiddling with her iPhone while the computer screen behind her displays Amazon’s selection of women’s boots. We learn that Jamie is increasingly worried that her daughter’s school is failing, and her fears are amplified when the same teacher refuses to stay after school to help Malia – in accordance with teachers’ union rules, her own laziness, or both. Gyllenhaal brings incredible range and vibrancy to her character, which significantly heightens the believability of the material.

The second lead, Nona (played by the great Viola Davis), is another teacher at the school, whose son is having similar learning difficulties. When Jamie is rebuffed in her attempt to move Malia into Nona’s class by a militant principal, she approaches Nona about overhauling the school via a little-used legal maneuver (based on California’s real life “parent trigger law”). With enough parental signatures and teachers willing to waive their substantial union benefits, the duo would be able to makeover the school. Their attempt (reluctant attempt in Nona’s case) to reverse the number of dropouts and bad test scores is met with major friction from fellow teachers and local union representatives.

Rosie Perez plays one of the reluctant teachers, Marianne Jean-Baptiste portrays a sympathetic school board member, and Holly Hunter returns to the big screen as a conniving but secretly unsure union employee. These three round out the aforementioned Oscar-nominated quintet, and their performances make the film impossible to dismiss as typically lousy conservative entertainment. Oscar Isaac plays Michael, the moral center of the film – a good teacher (with alternative, musical-based methods), a love interest for Jamie, and a union supporter. His character, a wonderful foil for Gyllenhaal, is tasked with espousing the most admirable qualities of unions, and Isaac does it effectively. As one character notes, “It’s possible to support your union and be critical of it at the same time.”

The film is a bit dry, but its 2-hour running time is made agreeable by the strength of Gyllenhaal’s performance and some nice visual tricks (including an excellent sequence in which Jamie and Nona go door-to-door in an apartment complex). Staunch unionists will find a lot to dislike about the film, but the filmmakers were wise to make the leads pragmatic mothers who simply want the best for their kids, rather than graying political activists. In an age when kids spend their days tweeting from classrooms and teachers shop online during school hours, it’s inspiring to see a major Hollywood production stand up for children and their futures in the face of certain scrutiny – and to celebrate the good teachers who are always there for their students. “Won’t Back Down” packs a punch and it deserves to be seen, no matter one’s political persuasion.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: September 28, 2012
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: Daniel Barnz
Screenwriter: Brin Hill, Daniel Barnz
Starring: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Oscar Isaac, Holly Hunter, Rosie Perez, Lance Reddick, Emily Alyn Lind
MPAA Rating: PG (for thematic elements and language)