This year has seen its fair share of films colliding with the real world in particularly painful ways. Both Dark Knight Rises and Gangster Squad were affected by the theater shooting in Colorado and the recent teacher’s strike in Chicago makes Won’t Back Down particularly pertinent. The state of education in this country is dire, and Won’t Back Down seeks to energize the populace into making the kinds of changes only a film like this can: the pie in sky kind.
In this fictionalized version of actual events, Jamie Fitzpatrick (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a passionate single mother, and Nona Alberts (Viola Davis), an equally passionate mother and despondent teacher, form an alliance to shake things up at their childrens’ failing inner city school. Standing in their way, of course, are scores of militant union reps, union-loyal teachers, and a stubborn bureaucracy unwilling, and in some ways, unable to change.
The main issue with the film is that its primary concern is filling your head with as much information as possible about how each group involved is failing its children, and the state laws that keep these groups in a constant fight against each other. This “Idiot’s Guide” approach is necessary in order for the audience to identify which side is for the kids (parents and teachers passionate about their work), and which side is against kids (unions and tenured teachers who are clearly just in it for the paycheck) all according to the filmmakers. Make no mistake that there are winners and losers in a fight of this magnitude and what the film lacks in bipartisanship it makes up for in its depiction of the nasty nature of this ongoing debate. When the “righteous” side inevitably prevails, it’s certainly not due to the entire community coming together for a common cause. When the defeated side leaves the field of battle there is no attempt at a friendly handshake across the aisle.
This film was clearly made as a grassroots tool to garner momentum for the education reform movement. It doesn’t seek to make artistic strides in the evolution of filmmaking or, regrettably, storytelling. It gets its agenda across by using talented and recognizable actors as mere stock characters in formulaic situations. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a movie like this, but one wonders how much more inspiration could be acquired through the use of fresher ideas and little less militancy.
Won’t Back Down will no doubt inspire many to take up arms against their own crappy schools until they realize the process isn’t nicely wrapped up in a two hour film. I applaud what this community was able to do for their children, but I shake my head at the borderline propagandist approach this film takes in reaching out to audiences. Until we identify tangible goals that don’t seek to make enemies out of certain people, I fear the only success we’ll see are those in the imagination.
Won’t Back Down opens today in Philly-area theaters.