Won’t Back Down
There’s a certain kind of film that exists for two reasons: to push policy ideas without having to bother with the niceties of facts or logic, and to garner award nominations. I call the rise of these films the “Erin Brockovich effect”, after that famous example, and the most recent Brockovich film is Won’t Back Down, which proves nothing so much as the fact that the lure of an Oscar is enough to get heretofore progressive actors to mouth right-wing talking points.
Jamie Fitzpatrick is at the end of her rope; her daughter, Malia (Emily Alyn Land), is dyslexic and stuck in a classroom with a disinterested bully of a teacher (Nancy Bach). The principal (Bill Nunn) is an ineffectual technocrat who can’t be bothered to make any effort on behalf of a struggling student, like moving her into another class run by Nona Alberts (Viola Davis), who may be jaded and drained of her youthful enthusiasm, but at least wants to teach well. She, too, has troubles, with a failing marriage (to Lance Reddick) and a struggling child of her own (Dante Brown).
So when Jamie learns about a mechanism whereby parents and teachers can “take over” and restructure a failing school, she recruits Nona to help get other parents and teachers (including Oscar Isaac and Rosie Perez) to make it happen. Of course they face strong opposition, mostly from the horrible, selfish teachers’ union and its Norma Rae-idolizing leader (Holly Hunter).
And now a digression on classical rhetoric for those readers who may not be familiar with it because, hey, public schools. There are three basic methods to convince an audience to believe you: logos, ethos, and pathos. Logos says the speaker should be believed because of logic and reason. Ethos says the speaker should be believed because they are believable. And pathos says says the speaker should be believed by making you feel bad about disagreeing.
In this sense, Brockovich films are almost entirely pathetic, and Won’t Back Down is no exception. They are partly based in an ethical appeal — we, as a culture, love a pretty white girl crusading for something, especially if she comes from some disadvantaged background — but even this character archetype’s believability is rooted in making us feel bad for her. And yes, I know Viola Davis is involved, but let’s not kid ourselves that Maggie Gyllenhaal isn’t the real lead actress here.
The movie may be produced by the same Walden Media who bankrolled the documentary Waiting for “Superman”, but that film at least laid out some logical argument about what could be done. All we get here in terms of suggestions are having students visualize themselves going to college as in The Secret — which Isaac’s character is already doing — and some fuzzy curriculum changes, none of which seem to actually require throwing out the union contract. There are some assertions — that the contract stipulates teachers may not offer assistance outside of regularly scheduled school hours, for instance — that just don’t ring true at all. And the asserted behavior of the union and its members sounds concocted to inspire the maximum pity for the poor beleaguered children. The filmmakers’ point, it seems clear, is not to actually help children but to overthrow the union and to use the kids as a crowbar to achieve that end.
Both Gyllenhaal and Davis deliver effective performances, but it would be hard for them not to with a script kludged together between anti-union talking points and big, meaty monologues to tear into. And when I say “kludged”, I mean held together with baling twine and Bondo; the writing is amateurish, and overloaded with misused big words that at first seem like part of an attempt to reinforce Jamie’s perceived lack of education, but eventually show up in so many other places that they sound like writer/director Daniel Barnz somehow made it through an Ivy League university thinking that a thesaurus is the key to good writing.
It’s not that there aren’t glaring problems with the current state of public education; it’s that this film is part of an effort to manipulate audiences into a quick fix that serves other interests rather than truly finding solutions to the problems themselves. There is an argument to be made, but issues this serious deserve a logical appeal, not a pathetic one like this.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: pass.