There ain't no easy way out for Judge Clark Douglas.
If you can't beat the system…change it.
"I've just never been able to talk smart people into doing things before."
Facts of the Case
Jamie Fitzpatrick (Maggie Gyllenhaal, The Dark Knight) is the mother of a dyslexic third-grade girl who is struggling in school. When Jamie learns that her daughter's struggles are being exacerbated by a lazy, incompetent teacher, she makes an effort to transfer her daughter to another school. Alas, that process proves exceptionally difficult. Soon, Jamie is spearheading an effort to overhaul her daughter's school (an action enabled by Parent Trigger laws), a move that earns her a great deal of opposition from the teacher's union. As such, union member Nona Alberts (Viola Davis, Doubt) is initially quite reluctant to join, but eventually decides to help when she realizes the importance of the cause. Will Jamie's vision for her daughter's school eventually become a reality, or are these lofty dreams doomed to failure?
Won't Back Down is a film that deals with a thorny, complicated, contentious political subject in an exceptionally simplistic way. Of course, there will be some who will be predisposed to love or loathe the movie based on where they stand on the issues it examines. If you're one of the folks who believes that teacher's unions are at the core of what's wrong with education in modern America, here's a film that firmly attempts to validate that belief. If you're of the belief that teacher's unions are essential to aiding those who choose to become educators, then the film will likely enrage you. There are passionate, valid arguments currently being made on both sides, as it's difficult to dispute either the necessity of removing bad teachers or the necessity of protecting good ones. I'll be honest: I can't stand Won't Back Down. Not because the film takes a side in the debate, mind you, but because it's an incredibly tedious piece of filmmaking.
Gracious, I can't remember the last time I saw an issue-driven movie that put this little effort into transforming its central sermon into compelling drama. The central characters in the film aren't real human beings; they're mouthpieces for the anti-union movement. These people constantly talk to each other using familiar rhetoric and tedious platitudes, as if the script had been primarily assembled from a large collection of signs used at a political rally. Maggie Gyllenhaal is a tremendous actress, but she seems lost at sea in Won't Back Down. On many occasions, she opens her eyes wide and stares intensely at whomever she's speaking to in a manner that is strangely reminiscent of Michelle Bachmann. It's clear that Gyllenhaal is putting a lot of work into this performance, but most of her effort is irritatingly directionless.
Viola Davis fares a bit better as the good-hearted teacher who reluctantly joins Gyllenhaal's movement, but she's also given precious little to work with. She's also saddled with one of the film's most useless and underwritten subplots, as her husband (Lance Reddick, The Wire) drifts away from her just so he can make a dramatic return during her time of need. Many of Davis' scenes involve her attempting to persuade the other teachers to support her cause. Given the film's fondness for hyperbole, it's no surprise that most of these scenes lead to the other teachers either lashing out angrily or providing boisterous support (a character played by Rosie Perez goes from one side of the spectrum to the other). There's a half-hearted effort to demonstrate that not all union supporters are bad people, but for the most part the opposition is presented as a group of mustache-twirling bureaucrats.
Won't Back Down plays so much like a thinly-dramatized screed that it's a little alarming when it just tries to be an ordinary movie. The romantic subplot between Gyllenhaal and Oscar Isaac (who plays the sort of teacher who can calm a room full of screaming kids with naught but a playful song about JFK) does nothing to enhance the film in any way, simply adding more baggage to its unbearable 121-minute running time (I realize that doesn't seem long, but I swear it felt like five hours). The pop song montage in which all of Gyllenhaal's new teacher friends dance together is so awkwardly shoehorned into the mix that it feels like an alien's attempt at mimicking an inspirational movie moment.
At least Won't Back Down (Blu-ray) offers a respectable 1080p/2.35:1 transfer. The film has an intentionally gritty, grimy look, which is similar to the approach taken by Tony Kaye's equally over-the-top (but more compelling) school drama Detachment. Detail is strong throughout and depth is impressive. Blacks are deep and inky. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is perfectly adequate, though this is a dialogue-driven film that never really attempts to impress on an audio level. The track is everything it needs to be. Supplements include a commentary with director Daniel Barnz, two EPK-style featurettes ("A Tribute to Teachers" and "The Importance of Education"), some deleted scenes, a trailer and a digital copy.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It must be admitted that Won't Back Down actually begins on an impressive note. Its powerful opening portrait of a struggling school is quickly followed by a sad, tense lottery sequence in which hundreds of desperate parents eagerly compete for a small handful of available slots at a better school. It's almost difficult to believe that a film this consistently clunky could contain such expertly-crafted moments, but it does.
No matter which side of this debate you find yourself on, this is an issue that deserves more nuanced treatment than the misguided Won't Back Down is willing to provide. The documentary Waiting for Superman made many similar points, but did so in a manner that was thoughtful and engaging. It's both poor filmmaking and poor politicizing, an earnest mess of a movie that views the world in simplistic black-and-white terms.
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