Daniel Barnz’s Won’t Back Down has the unique position of containing what might be the worst opening five minutes of any movie I’ve ever seen. The film wants to be a treatise on the problems with public schooling, so it opens with a young dyslexic girl (Emily Alyn Lind, J. Edgar) standing in front of her class attempting to read aloud from a blackboard. In the background, rude children are playing video games and poking fun at her, while the world’s most grotesquely awful teacher sits at her desk, texting and shopping for boots on the Internet. All of this is shot in a dull, grainy, drained gray color pallette. While the rest of the film never quite sinks this far as a means of stacking its own deck, it’s still an important sequence because we understand the wavelength Won’t Back Down is working on, and the type of intellectual dishonesty it has no issue treading in. For a film that wants to traipse around as fair and balanced, Barnz’s movie instead becomes intelligence-insulting.
Won’t Back Down has drawn a lot of criticism for going after teacher’s unions. This is a movie about the poverty-stricken mother (Maggie Gyllenhaal) of the aforementioned dyslexic daughter, and a good teacher (Viola Davis) at the end of her rope. Together, they try to legally take over a failing, shoddy elementary school — but at the expense of the teacher’s union. There’s a cursory attempt at giving the union’s point-of-view — like the good-hearted music teacher (Oscar Isaac, Drive) who wants to help — but we never get very deep into the debate. No matter how many interviews Gyllenhaal or Davis give proclaiming that they’re not anti-labor (or reminding us that they’re members of SAG), I’m not sure how else you’re supposed to see them. There’s certainly a need for a measured, nuanced film about public education reform, but it’s definitely not this movie — a film in which the transparently smarmy, lying bad guy (Ned Eisenberg, Limitless) is also the man in charge of the union.
All of this ultimately results in the film’s fundamental failure: It aims to be a message picture that forwards a discussion, but ends up being nothing more than propaganda. The film even unravels into melodrama by the third act, all for maximum heartstring-tugging effect. The thing is, I’d probably be less perturbed about the movie’s aims if it — and its cast — had been upfront about what it is, instead of carrying on with its high-minded pretensions. I’m not saying that there aren’t issues with public schools, but heaping all the blame on unions (never is there a mention of lack of funding, for instance), and then shouting from the rooftops that you’re not anti-union is just plain crooked. It’s unfortunate, too since Won’t Back Down ends up with a good performance from Gyllenhaal and an occasionally — though unsurprisingly — wonderful one from Davis, plus a few flurries of assured filmmaking from Barnz. But this is a film so behind the 8-ball in terms of its intent and hoary plotting that only a concerted amount of consistent brilliance could have saved it from the scrap heap. Rated PG for thematic elements and language.