First, NPR's review:
All cynicism aside, the movie taps a rich vein of accumulated public frustration at the continued failure of government to provide decent access to public schools for all American children. Aside from religion itself, no subject lends itself more to arm-waving entrenched positions than education. And perhaps a movie aimed at a mainstream audience can't help but distill the discussion into culture-war sound bites.Next, David Germain of the Associated Press pans the movie:
For all its strenuous feints at fair play, though, Won't Back Down is something less honorable — a propaganda piece with blame on its mind. Directed with reasonable competence by Daniel Barnz from a speechifying screenplay he co-wrote with Brin Hill, the movie is funded by Walden Media, a company owned by conservative mogul Philip Anschutz, who advocates creationist curricula in schools. Walden also co-produced the controversial pro-charter school documentary Waiting for Superman, so the outfit is not without axes to grind.
In fact, it's nuance and reason that fall by the wayside amid the sloganeering rhetoric of Won't Back Down. Like most large institutions with interests to protect, the unions could use some reforms, especially when it comes to shielding bad teachers from scrutiny and discipline.
But if you were to wave a magic wand that replaced unions and bureaucrats with a rainbow coalition of local parents and educators coming together to create the kind of school they want, the result would be chaos, not to mention an end to the tattered remains of our common culture.
"We need to start somewhere," comes a stern, God-like voice in Won't Back Down, waving off all talk about the role of poverty and inequality in under-resourced schools and underachieving pupils. We do indeed. Just not here.
Despite earnest performances from Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis as a pair of moms leading the fight, "Won't Back Down" lives down to its bland, us-against-them title with a simple-minded assault on the ills of public schools that lumbers along like a math class droning multiplication tables.
Director and co-writer Daniel Barnz ("Beastly") made his feature debut with 2009's "Phoebe in Wonderland," an intimate story of a troubled girl aided by an unconventional teacher. Here, Barnz gets lost in red tape as "Won't Back Down" gives us the inside dope on the teacher's lounge, the union headquarters, the principal-teacher showdown, the hushed halls of the board of education.
Theaters should install glow-in-the-dark versions of those old clunking classroom clocks so viewers can count the agonizing minutes ticking by as they watch the movie.
And it's the children who suffer in "Won't Back Down." Other than some token scenes involving Jamie and Nona's kids, the students are mere extras in a drama that spends most of its time prattling on about how the children are what matter most.
And finally, saving the best for last, Andrew O'Hehir
So teachers’ unions don’t care about kids. Oh, and luck is a foxy lady. This is what I took away from the inept and bizarre “Won’t Back Down,” a set of right-wing anti-union talking points disguised (with very limited success) as a mainstream motion-picture-type product. Someone needs to launch an investigation into what combination of crimes, dares, alcoholic binges and lapses in judgment got Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal into this movie. Neither of them seems likely to sympathize with its thinly veiled labor-bashing agenda and, way more to the point, I thought they had better taste. Maybe it was that actor-y thing where they saw potential in their characters – a feisty, working-class single mom for Gyllenhaal, a sober middle-class schoolteacher for Davis – liked the idea of working together and didn’t think too much about the big picture.
Perhaps that was a mistake, because the big picture is that the movie is unbelievable crap and the whole project was financed by conservative Christian billionaire Phil Anschutz, also the moneybags behind the documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman,’” which handled a similar agenda in subtler fashion.
“Won’t Back Down” was reportedly inspired by a California law that allows parent-teacher takeovers of failing schools under certain circumstances. Again, that sounds like a fascinating premise, albeit one that’s highly likely to go in unforeseen “Animal Farm” directions. But all we get here is the most blithe and moronic kind of “let’s put on a show” magical thinking, in which ripping up the union contract and wresting control of the school from the bureaucrats becomes an end in itself, and what happens later is shrouded in the mists of an imaginary libertarian paradise. There are attempts at Fox News-style balance here and there, as when someone observes that most charter schools fail to improve outcomes and when a bombastic union exec played by Ned Eisenberg delivers a monologue about the current assault on labor (right before announcing that he couldn’t care less about children).
Most people still understand, I believe, that teachers work extremely hard for little pay and low social status in a thankless, no-win situation. But this is one of those areas where conservatives have been extremely successful in dividing the working class, which is precisely the agenda in “Won’t Back Down.” Breeding hostility to unions in themselves, and occasionally insinuating that unionized teachers are a protected caste of incompetents who get three damn months off every single year, has been an effective tactic in what we might call postmodern Republican populism, especially in recent battles over public employee contracts in Wisconsin and elsewhere. It works something like this: 1) Turn the resentment and frustration of people like Jamie – people with crappy service-sector jobs and few benefits, whose kids are stuck in failing schools – against the declining group of public employees who still have a decent deal. 2) Strip away job security and collective bargaining; hand out beer and ukuleles instead. 3) La la la la, tax cuts, tax cuts, I can’t hear you!
On the plus side for "Won't Back Down", NY Times food critic Frank Bruni loved the movie so much that he decided to devote an entire column to how much teachers unions and unionized teachers suck and how much better we would all be if teachers would just mindlessly accept whatever "reforms" the education reform movement wants to impose on schools.
That Bruni thought enough of "Won't Back Down" that he used it as a springboard for his teacher attack column makes you wonder what he was watching.
Maybe Bruni wasn't watching the same "Won't Back Down" as the critics for NPR, Salon, and the AP?
Maybe he was watching the video to Tom Petty's "Won't Back Down."
Or, more likely, Petty's "Don't Come Around Here No More."
Hey, Frank, stay away from the magic mushrooms when you're writing about education, okay?
UPDATE - 3:01 PM: Critics from Variety, the Arizona Republic, the Hollywood Reporter and the Village Voice also think "Won't Back Down" sucks.
Maggie Anderson in the Voice writes:
The fat, lazy public school teacher who can’t be bothered to stop diddling with her phone or shopping for shoes online while her second-grade class erupts into mayhem in the opening scene of Won’t Back Down isn’t the most despicable entity in this tearjerker. That would be the union that protects her, the same malevolent force in Davis Guggenheim’s horribly argued pro-charter-school documentary from 2010, Waiting for Superman (both films were funded by Walden Media, led by a conservative billionaire).
Viewed solely as maternal melodrama, Won’t Back Down succeeds; its actresses, as they spearhead the takeover and work through “personal demons,” rouse, rage, and rue admirably (though in Davis’s case, marveling at yet another fine performance doesn’t stop you from wishing that her first leading role was in a worthier vehicle). But there’s no prettying up the movie’s vilifying of teachers’ unions, which here resort to dirty tricks and smear campaigns—an easy enough scapegoat for the larger, more intractable economic problems also ignored in Guggenheim’s film and by most politicians of any stripe.
And David Rooney of the Hollywood Reporter writes:
The jury is still out on a solution to the national education system crisis, but the verdict is delivered with a heavy hand and a stacked deck in the formulaic Won’t Back Down. Simplifying complex school-reform hurdles into tidy inspirational clichés while demonizing both teachers’ unions and bureaucracy-entrenched education boards, the movie addresses timely issues but eschews shading in favor of blunt black and white. It’s old-school Lifetime fodder dressed up in Hollywood trappings.Peter Debruge of Variety writes that the film takes its audience "for dummies" by "grossly oversimplifying the issue at hand" while Barbara VanDenburgh of the Arizona Republic writes that
Oversimplified politics undermine the film at every turn. The shrill preachiness reaches a fever pitch by the film's climax, a schoolboard hearing that takes place under the watchful gazes of a muralized Abraham Lincoln and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and in which the deciding vote is cast by a man named -- what else? -- Mr. King, who monologues against a backdrop of the civil-rights leader to thunderous applause.
The movie doesn't just shriek its point to you through a megaphone -- it beats you over the head with it.
And it doesn't matter which side of the debate you land on; two hours of schmaltz mired in bloodless policy debate just doesn't make for good movie watching. Even if you stripped the film bare of political pretensions, you'd still be left with unabashed, hokey sentimentality where such feel-good adages as "Change the school, you change the neighborhood" are sprinkled on complex problems like so much fairy dust.
There's a real conversation to be had about the sorry state of the public-school system, but all this movie is going to trigger is a lot of screaming.
Looks like there will be no Oscar for the ed reform movement again this year.
They were dying to get an Oscar win for Davis Guggenheim's "Waiting for Superman," but not only did "Superman" not win an Oscar, it wasn't even nominated.
Judging by the reviews of the heavy-handed, badly written "Won't Back Down," the reform movement is going to have to hope the third time is a charm when it comes to winning an Oscar and promoting their message via pop culture.
Wonder what they'll try next?
An animated Disney education reform picture (Donald Duck can be the lazy, nasty, unionized teacher.)
Maybe an updated Boston Public mini-series that promotes privatization, charterization and high stakes testing?
Or maybe they can stop trying to fool people with propaganda and engage on the issues for real.
Improving the education system is not as easy as firing all the teachers, closing all the schools, and turning the entire public school system to charters.
The economic conditions that kids face at home matter when they come to school.
The movie critics get this.
Why can't the education reform community and the politicians?
Why can't President Obama?