Education

Won't Back Down

Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis team up in Hollywood's latest implausible school reform flick

|

Settle in for a showing of Won't Back Down, and you'll be greeted with a trailer for Here Comes the Boom. Both movies are about schools in trouble. The teachers and students are apathetic, administrators are obstructionist, and money is tight. In Here Comes the Boom, a 42-year-old biology teacher played by Kevin James sets out to raise $50,000 to save the arts programs at his school, inspire his students, and win the love of a cardigan-wearing Salma Hayek by becoming a Mixed Martial Arts fighter.

Won't Back Down is a more serious-minded film with a much more talented cast. But its premise is, unfortunately, nearly as implausible. A single mother (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and a disillusioned teacher (Viola Davis) band together to fix a failing Pittsburgh school, relying on a fudged and fictionalized version of the "parent trigger" laws that exist in California and three other states. In the film, the reformers must get 50 percent of the parents and 50 percent of the teachers to sign on to a plan to revamp the school—breaking the union in the process—all before they can get a hearing. That isn't exactly how these laws work in real life, but the general sense of hopelessness, insane bureaucracy, and long odds are adequately conveyed.

In the post Waiting for Superman-era, the elements of the story are predictable: A dramatic crowd scene where hundreds pray for one of the tiny number of slots available at a successful neighborhood charter school. A depressing classroom shot in which a tenured teacher ignores her illiterate, innumerate, and ill-behaved students while fiddling with her cellphone. The inevitable romance between the single mom and the adorable Teach for America guy (Oscar Issac). The door-to-door signature gathering montage. The rally. The climactic school board vote.

The movie is well made, and quite painless, considering the genre. The necessary explainers are handled smoothly and with some humor (Gyllenhal's character, the inappropriately clad Erin Brockovich of school reform, asks why her daughter's terrible teacher can't be fired and then shouts, exasperated, "Oh yeah, 'cuz she's tenurized!") And Davis' dead-eyed stare when that same teacher pours herself the last of the coffee and then waltzes out of the teachers' lounge without making a new pot is terrifyingly true-to-life.

 

The film even goes out of its way to give teachers unions their due—we hear all about about "Mr. Cooper" who would have lost his job for showing his kids Hair if it weren't for the union—but ultimately slots union fat cats as the villains. One particularly nice moment has a union bigwig, played Holly Hunter in a marvelously clichéd beige beret, trying to buy off Gyllenhaal with what is essentially a voucher—a scholarship to a private school where her dyslexic daughter will get special attention.

That fact, combined with a generally heated atmosphere over school choice thanks to the teachers' strike in Chicago and protests around the country, meant the film would inevitably cause controversy. The organizers of the Democratic National Convention were nervous about hosting a screening there this summer, for instance, while their Republican counterparts happily demagogued the film at their convention. And teachers unions protested outside the movie's New York premier. (Sample shouty slogan from their own YouTube video, Educating Maggie: "Parent trigger hasn't been tried, and parent trigger doesn't work!") Yet director and writer Daniel Barnz (inevitably, the son and grandson of teachers) said in an interview that he finds the controversy around Don't Back Down "perplexing." Gyllenhaal has also said she "has been really surprised by the controversy, to be honest." 

The action of the film takes place over a whirlwind two months, and the logic of Hollywood makes only one ending possible—a coda in which singing, smiling children are applauded by beaming, triumphant adults. But in real life, no parent trigger has yet been successfully pulled, and starting a charter school from scratch, even in relatively innovation-friendly cities like Washington, D.C., or New Orleans, can take years. As the hard-bitten administrative assistant at the movie's Pittsburgh superintendent's office says "the parents always give up."

The most accurate analysis of most reformers' chances for success may come from Gyllenhaal's on-screen daughter, Malia. After an impassioned speech in which her mom vows that "we're going to get you out of there," she responds with a perfect, furiously indifferent "whatever."

The film's dramatic denouement relies on a series of lucky coincidences: A teacher who happens to have an entire curriculum and school management plan stashed in a Xerox box in the back of her closet. A departing head of schools with a guilty conscience and a willingness to bend the rules. And a conflicted union official who pulls punches in the fight. A few may get their own Hollywood endings, but most would-be school reformers won't be so fortunate.

NEXT: Ohio Voter Rolls Primed for Fraud

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. They should have called this Won’t Blackhawk Down and had Maggie Gyllenhall lead an attack on her school district in a helicopter gunship.

    1. I guess Ridley Scott isn’t ever going to win Best Director.

    2. Only for her corpse to be dragged through the streets by victorious NEA goons.

      1. Cue mournful East African-sounding music.

    3. I would indeed pay money to see that movie.

    4. Y’all still got the touch, Fluff. I love it.

      1. Hey! Great to see you!

        … Hobbit

  2. Maggie Gyllenhaal has an on-screen, sarcastic daughter? Man, that makes me feel old.

  3. A teacher who happens to have an entire curriculum and school management plan stashed in a Xerox box in the back of her closet. A departing head of schools with a guilty conscience and a willingness to bend the rules. And a conflicted union official who pulls punches in the fight. A few may get their own Hollywood endings, but most would-be school reformers won’t be so fortunate.

    Ok, I laughed when I read this. A “conflicted” union official. Yeah, if only…

  4. And Loder’s and Suderman’s reviews of this chick flick in 3….2….

  5. And teachers unions protested outside the movie’s New York premier.

    Sometimes I think the problem with libertarians is we don’t have nearly enough people willing to angrily protest the tiniest infringement on our turf.

    Where the hell does the left get these people? How can there possibly be that many people that brainwashed with that much free time and interest to be willing to take time out of their lives to go protest a film because it makes teachers unions look bad?

    It seems as if they can almost instantaneously summon a crowd of slogan shouting morons for the slightest retarded little issue: protesting Whole Foods because John Mackey says something bad about health care, etc. Where does this shit come from? You think a bunch of people just saw the film was opening and spontaneously though “damn, we can’t have a film that makes teachers unions look bad, we gotta go protest, right now!” And even if not spontaneous, are there like secret meetings of people who have nothing better to do that look for stupid shit to protest all day?

    1. The funny part to me is that they can protest the littlest thing, but if libertarians were to do it you know what they’d say: we’re being “extreme” and “purist”, blah blah blah.

    2. This is what unions do absolutely the BEST – organize people to protest. They are absolute masters at it. And they love to do it.

      Budgeting, saving money?? Not so good. Putting together a flash mob and protesting something? Absolute fucking Masters of the Universe.

    3. Teacher’s unions have billions and sometimes hire drones to pretend to be union protesters.

      1. No one’s going to fall for that. If they let drones teach, our schools wouldn’t have problems in the first place (especially disciplinary problems). I mean, collateral damage might be an issue, but that’s why you give the honors students separate classrooms.

        1. Perhaps Obama can use drones to assassinate the really bad teachers as a threat to national security.
          Cause that seems like the only way to get rid of them.

          1. If the government is big enough to shoot an American citizen with a hellfire missile, it surely is big enough to fire a union employee.

  6. Yet director and writer Daniel Barnz (inevitably, the son and grandson of teachers) said in an interview that he finds the controversy around Don’t Back Down “perplexing.” Gyllenhaal has also said she “has been really surprised by the controversy, to be honest.”

    This is a really good indication of the kind of bubble that people associated with Hollywood live in. The whole premise of the movie steps on two of the most sacred cows in the progressive realm–unions AND public school teachers–and they honestly thought that wasn’t going to get a pretty extreme reaction?

    The real flaw of films like this and Waiting for Superman is that they confuse symptoms with the disease, which is our whole overly complex, bureaucratized, balkanized, politically correct, socially dysfunctional society. They imply charter school formation as a panacea for the educational system, when the rot really goes a lot deeper than that. It requires a fundamental change in the nation’s culture that would ultimately reform various social and economic institutions across the country, not just education, although that’s required as the starting point–it’s no accident that the radical left targeted the schools as the foundation for building support for their agenda over the decades. And no one has the vision or capability to lead that charge because we’ve spent the last 40 years undermining and demeaning those institutions that made us powerful to begin with.

    1. “The real flaw of films like this and Waiting for Superman is that they confuse symptoms with the disease, which is our whole overly complex, bureaucratized, balkanized, politically correct, socially dysfunctional society. They imply charter school formation as a panacea for the educational system, when the rot really goes a lot deeper than that. It requires a fundamental change in the nation’s culture that would ultimately reform various social and economic institutions across the country, not just education.”

      Very, very nice. Three cheers at Red Rocks.

      1. But maybe Busta Rhymes had a point when he exhorted us to “rebuild this whole shit from the underground up”.

  7. I have a friend at work who (along with his daughter ) was an extra in the film, I’ll probably end up seeing it. He characterized the story pretty well, and anticipated the controversy. If the malers of the film can’t do that but an extra can, thry’re a bit out of touch.

    1. I think they’re just acting surprised so they don’t get arrested if the NEA kills an ambassador.

    2. What about the femalers? You patriarchal bastard you.

  8. Sometimes you jsut have to roll with it.

    http://www.AnonData.tk

  9. I saw a pre-release screening of the film in Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago. It’s not bad at all, easily as good or better than about 90% of the movies I’ve seen this year. It’s a little predictable, but most movies are, especially chick flicks. The most important thing about this movie, though, is that it was made at all. I don’t think that would have happened 15 years ago.

  10. And Davis’ dead-eyed stare when that same teacher pours herself the last of the coffee and then waltzes out of the teachers’ lounge without making a new pot is terrifyingly true-to-life.

  11. Very, very nice. Three cheers at Red Rocks.

  12. I am sitting in the theater watching it now and I think it is very good. I particularly like the portrayal of how vicious the educrat cartel, what the press refers to as “teacher’s unions,” are in offering bribes and threats to stop reform. Including an administrator firing a rebel teacher for falsifying attendance records – as he had ordered her to do. Or punishing children of the rebel parents. Or digging up any old dirt to smear people.

    Teachers should be able to run schools, own them, make a profit from them. They only need unions to protect them from the bureaucracy because it is a monopoly employer.

    1. How dare you be on your phone in the theater.

  13. Ohhh controversy. Not as controversial as “inherent differences in IQ are producing the different results in educational outcomes,” but it’s progress!

  14. Doudoune Moncler Femme Solde En Beige 2013 La veste en nylon de haute technologie . Lustre particulier ,Doudoune Moncler Femme Nouvelle 2013 la texture , mince, toucher soyeux .Doudoune Moncler Femme Destockage Noel Le col de fourrure, amovible arc mati?re d’embellissement faille Doudoune Moncler Femme Pas Cher En Beige.
    http://www.moncler-homme.com/d…..-p267.html
    http://www.ralphlaurenhommes.c…..p1597.html

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.