Won’t Back Down tells the true story of a motivated mom and a frustrated teacher who take on the established teachers’ union that has prevented reforms at a school in Pittsburgh that has been failing students for decades. Where the movie succeeds is in presenting honest, driven and flawed characters that have a vision that is bigger than any one person. Solid, earnest performances from Maggie Gyllenhaal (The Dark Knight) and Viola Davis (The Help) keep the viewer engaged and visually interesting cinematography and editing keep the movie from becoming mired in the script’s posturing and moralizing.
It’s difficult to divorce a critique of Won’t Back Down from the polarizing subject matter that the filmmakers attempt to tackle. Having experienced months of protests and critiques of teachers unions, most in Wisconsin will have already made up their mind which side they represent, and writer/director Daniel Barnz makes no effort to present a fair debate. The film presents the teachers union as a selfish, cigar-chompingly evil body that cares only about making teachers rich, damn the consequences. While nuance is hard to impart in a 2-hour movie, something more than lip service toward the good that unions have done in education would have been appreciated for balance.
The plot of Won’t Back Down is formulaic and staid, running a well-worn path. Following the lead of films like Dangerous Minds, Stand and Deliver, and Erin Brockovich, WBD does nothing novel and wastes potential by having characters give monologues explaining their thoughts. Twists in the third act—which are likely based in reality—aren’t well set-up and seem to muddle the narrative. Likewise—no doubt in an attempt to make the characters complicated—overstuff the plot with minutia that only bogs the film down and distracts from its point.
A simplistic, one-sided film that doesn’t break new ground wastes good performances from Holly Hunter, Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal. Characters and plot-points are scattered all over the film resulting in a movie that has bold ideas and a message it wants to impart, bludgeoning it home with a clichéd bat.
Reflecting the rhetorical war waged in Wisconsin over the last couple of years, Won’t Back Down won’t change any minds but gives voice to reformers and the efforts undertaken in Pittsburgh, illuminating the union’s dirty tactics. Predictable, pedantic and preachy, Won’t Back Down doesn’t do anything terribly wrong but never rises above mediocrity. It’s worth seeing but I’d wait for DVD.
Recommended If You Like: