Political films really ought to start coming with warning labels. For every Mr. Smith Goes To Washington or Wag The Dog, there's a Fahrenheit 9/11 or a 2016: Obama's America eager to sully the brand with didacticism, condescension, and a shocking lack of perspective. It is to that latter pile that we must unfortunately add Won't Back Down. Despite an appealing cast (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Holly Hunter) and a hot-button subject, Back features a story that might be better served by a powerpoint presentation than a narrative film. Even when it's at its most cinematic, it never manages to bring any heat to an issue that could well change the face of American life.
Most people have some kind of teacher's union horror story; teachers refusing to pay special attention to the kids who really need it (such as a girl here with dyslexia who is all but put in the stocks), nasty contractual disputes, incompetence preserved solely by virtue of tenure. It's easy enough to find anecdotal evidence of their hypocrisies, but do they amount to enough to pin the failings of the whole education system on them? If Back is to be believed, it is. So much of the film has the feeling of a hand-held teacher expose that you'd see on the eleven o'clock news that the absolute contempt on the part of the film-makers threatens to overwhelm all other aspects of the film. Given what she observes with her own eyes, it's hard not to sympathize with Jamie (Gyllenhaal) when she takes radical steps to provide a quality education for her daughter. But are charter schools really the solution to her problem?
The answer, of course, is complicated. Much too complicated for most people to understand without the use of graphs and flow charts (you can include this reviewer in that). Thankfully, Won't Back Down never descends to that level of creative poverty, but it still invests much in the minutiae of bureaucracy and rigor of community organizing. Though it clearly takes cues from past shocks to the school system like Lean On Me and Stand And Deliver, it's never able to frame its story in the same galvanizing way. For as much as this film clearly despises teaching organizations (one of them starts an active smear campaign against Jamie when threatened by her, sending out a libelous flyer among the community), it still feels obligated to temper its rage with political jargon and calculated overtures to deflect criticism (with single mom Gyllenhaal and sympathetic teacher Davis at the center acting as human shields). One character accused of union-bashing (played by a vastly underused Ving Rhames) claims that he only wishes to critique them while supporting them, as if addressing potential critiques before the film has even hit theaters. At times, it feels like the only weapon that any of these opponents have against one another are talking points.
Even before it came out, Won't Back Down was accused of crass partisanship, based on some of the political connections of Walden Media (which also produced the Narnia films). Even though it’s unlikely that those were what doomed it to such a brief theatrical run, the film might have been better served by making its already apparent agenda even more nakedly angry; it at least would have helped to clarify the issue. Viewers unfamiliar with the debates going on in public schools are unlikely to feel enlightened (let alone engaged) by the end, and so Won't Back Down falls into the same trap that caught so many treatises before it. With too much lingo to fit comfortably into exposition and unable to look too passionate without being alienating, it comes across more like October ad space than anything else. Despite the occasional flashes of energy, Won’t Back Down is a good reminder why those ads are only thirty seconds long.
There are some deleted Scenes with optional commentary by Director Daniel Barnz, the featurettes "A Tribute to Teachers" and "The Importance of Education", an audio commentary with Barnz, and a theatrical trailer.
"Won't Back Down" is on sale January 15, 2013 and is rated PG. Directed by Daniel Barnz. Written by Daniel Barnz, Brin Hill. Starring Holly Hunter, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Marianne Jean Baptiste, Oscar Isaac, Rosie Perez, Viola Davis.