Ricky Gervais’ sitcom Extras has a famous gag starring Kate Winslet as a version of herself starring in a Holocaust movie because it’s a surefire way to win an Oscar (irony of all ironies, Winslet won an Oscar for her performance in The Reader a few years later). One wishes Maggie Gyllenhaal had that same self-awareness. Don’t get me wrong, Gyllenhaal is a very good actress, bordering on great. But she does seem to gravitate towards “important” roles guaranteed to win her acclaim. It was with this degree of wariness that I approached Won’t Back Down.
Based on trailers, I thought it would be a shameless Oscar grab. Based on current events, such as Scott Walker’s concerted effort to strip Wisconsin unions of all their power, the messy Chicago teachers’ strike, and the NFL’s referee lockout (the only way to really get the American public to give a shit about labor issues), I expected this film to be unrealistically idealistic, politically simplistic, and full of too-easy platitudes about how #pluck, #spunk, and #hardwork can overcome all adversity.
It hit all three of those low points, but surprisingly, it manages to maintain a reasonable amount of focus on what really matters: the children. Jamie (Gyllenhaal) and Nona (Viola Davis) both have children—Malia and Cody (Emily Alyn Lind and Dante Brown, respectively)—whose characters are as fully developed as children in movies can be. There is a pretty honest portrayal of a public school classroom, as well as the nightmare of school board meetings and the bureaucratic process. It’s like a very, very serious episode of Parks and Recreation.
Tom Waits rightly sang “Misery’s the River of the World.” Well, bureaucracy’s the sewer of the world: nasty and necessary. If there’s one huge flaw with Jamie, it’s that she expects bureaucracy to bend to her whims and needs. This isn’t an unfair expectation, but it is a selfish one. Sometimes rules are rules. Sometimes things actually can’t be accomplished.
Jamie spends a lot of time yelling at bureaucrats until everything goes exactly her way. Good for her. But something the film doesn’t address is the reason public school funding is so terrible. No mention is made of unfair tax laws, bank bailouts, and the kind of municipal government cronyism that chokes out public schools, fire and police departments, and infrastructure. The film gestures toward these social issues, but ultimately ignores them. Our hero is a single mom who works in a bar and has a completely absent baby daddy, and she proceeds as if her kid is the first child the public school system ever failed. Never mind the fact that one teacher may juggle a 40-student classroom with English Language Learners from Mexico, South Africa, Morocco, and Lithuania. Never mind that thanks to government budgets, schools are forced to close entirely or drastically downsize.
You can argue that Jamie is controlling what she can control, doing her best to effect some sort of tangible change. This is correct. But the film attacks teachers’ unions and their power structures—why ignore the other half of that picture?
Which brings me to my ultimate point: Just because a movie deigns to address serious issues does not mean that movie is qualified to discuss those issues.
We’re supposed to applaud Maggie G and Viola D for taking on these courageous roles. Watch them on the talk show circuit and notice the back-patting they get. Wait until the Seth McFarlane-hosted Oscars roll around, and their names will be read off of nominee lists. This is not undeserved—they both turn in very good performances. That doesn’t mean Won’t Back Down is a successful movie with a good message.
On a formal level, the dialogue is single-minded and wooden. Most of the characters are myopic plot-movers. There are clear-cut good guys and bad guys, which is an unforgivable transgression for a smug drama attempting to navigate the tricky waters of education reform. The only character I really enjoyed was Oscar Isaac’s Michael, a ukulele-toting Teacher For America who genuinely wants to do good, but struggles with his own limited capabilities and is in way over his head. He was refreshingly complex, not just some do-gooder caricature.
Won’t Back Down comes, intentionally or not, at a critical moment in American Labor history. As the gap between the rich and poor widens, unions are fighting for their very existence. Teachers unions and sports unions alike are fighting for basic rights, like healthcare and pensions and the right to exist. NFL fans just want their refs to make the right calls. NBA fans just want an 82-game season. NHL fans don’t want to lose a second season in eight years. Similarly, parents just want their kids to have the best learning environment possible. While the NFL referee debacle proved that throwing unqualified scabs into the fray can have disastrous results, Won’t Back Down asserts that all you need to do to get your progeny a decent education is badger and alienate everyone who has anything to do with your child’s education. Sure, it’s good to have a movie highlighting education reform issues. Just keep in mind that you may end up like an NFL replacement referee, irreparably changing the course of the game for the worse.