This is the type of movie this reviewer has been waiting for in this election-year silly season of pandering documentaries, agitprop and flag-waving dramas — a genuine dramatic film with extremely high production values, a well-plotted script, believable and sympathetic characters, genuine heart and actors possessing both talent and star power. That movie is “Won’t Back Down,” which opened nationwide on Sept. 28.
Starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis above the title and Rosie Perez, Lance Reddick, Ving Rhames and Holly Hunter beneath it, “Won’t Back Down” also features an abundance of fine performances from its supporting cast. Above all, it’s always astonishing when a director can prompt natural and believable performances from child performers, as director Daniel Barnz (and co-screenwriter with Brin Hill) quite capably achieves.
The movie features Gyllenhaal as Jamie Fitzpatrick, an exasperated single mother of a young, dyslexic daughter and Davis as Nona Alberts, a burned-out teacher who gets her instructional mojo working again. Fed up with the cavalier treatment both student and teacher suffer at the hands of Adams Elementary leadership, faculty and the Pennsylvania teachers union, Jamie and Nona set out to take over their Pittsburgh grade school. Jamie and Nona campaign for teacher and parent support in order to re-establish Adams as a charter public school, involving a long, arduous process needlessly rife with hurdles, hostility and red tape.
It is those needless items that “Won’t Back Down” most adequately addresses. In real life, Chicago teachers held their city as well as its 350,000 public-school student body hostage last month by opting to strike — despite the facts they work shorter school days than any other major American school district and were offered a 16 percent pay increase over four years. The CTU desired a 30 percent raise, and rankled at proposed evaluations that would measure their effectiveness. As reported in National Review, 40 percent of the Windy City’s public school teachers send their children to private schools (admittedly from a 2004 survey) and 79 percent of the city’s eighth-graders fall below reading proficiency standards.
Something is clearly wrong in this scenario, which is analogous to the problems experienced at Adams Elementary in “Won’t Back Down.” This sorry state of affairs is addressed by several “Parent Trigger” bills currently under consideration by state legislatures throughout the country, including Michigan’s Senate Bill 620. Should Michigan enact its version of the Parent Trigger, a school can be converted into a charter public school if 51 percent of the parents or 51 percent of the teachers in a particular school sign a petition requesting such action.
Much has been written about the film’s supposed bashing of teachers unions, an assessment with which I disagree vehemently. What “Won’t Back Down” encourages is an equal voice and very appealing choice for parents and teachers who wish to educate children with a modicum of self-determination unhindered by road blocks and unwieldy regulations that provide no benefit whatsoever for students. In other words, if the teachers unions in Wisconsin, Chicago and elsewhere actually believed they provide a value-added to the education of children, they should drop their defensive posturing and concomitant intimidation of the film’s stars and rest on their respective laurels. Further, their skin should be thick enough to take a little pushback from a little ol’ movie that posits just one of several possible solutions. It’s about the kids and their educational needs, folks.
As Sam Karnick, your writer’s former co-worker at The Heartland Institute — among the first nationwide proponents of the Parent Trigger mechanism — wrote last week: “This film demonstrates that a new, better understanding of the issue of school choice is rapidly pervading our society,” he said: “It is a civil rights issue. Trapping poor people in bad schools perpetuates poverty, dependency, crime and human misery. The current system is in fact an outrage against the nation’s basic values, and that is the stuff of great drama — and the rapidly growing support for reform the nation has experienced in recent years.”
Wise words, and an admonition that will benefit not only the students of the film’s Adams Elementary in Pittsburgh but potentially the very real students in every other school district across the country as well. “Won’t Back Down” is a long overdue shot across the bow of those who would deny our children’s primacy in the debates over educational policy.
Bruce Edward Walker is an editor-at-large and former managing editor of MichiganScience at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.