Won’t Back Down

There’s no doubt that Daniel Barnz’s Won’t Back Down is an exercise in political advocacy — as a lot of people have pointed out who never seem to mind about this when it’s their own politics that are getting a more or less surreptitious airing. But my usual objection to propaganda is softened, somewhat, by the fact that the movie’s politics have been forced upon it. Time was when a story of parents seeking a way to provide a good education for their children would have had no political dimension. This desire to do well for one’s issue was as much an ordinary human ambition as love, money or honor. Now, quite as much as love, money and honor, education has been politicized, mainly but not exclusively by those teachers’ unions whose political clout has been shamelessly used to ensure that failing schools continue to fail, remaining open and unreformed so long as they are allowed to serve their teachers’ and administrators’ needs rather than those of the pupils who are trapped in them.

Yet somehow, those who call attention to what ought to be a national scandal — teachers standing in the way of education for the poorest and least politically powerful Americans — are the ones accused of having political motives. Moreover, the teachers’ unions are in cahoots with a political and educational establishment whose constraints upon teachers and whose ideas about what and how to teach are partly responsible for the failure of the schools in the first place. The other part of the responsibility lies with parents, very few of whom will be able to recognize themselves in feisty single mom Jamie Fitzpatrick (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the heroine of Mr Barnz’s movie, who leads the forces of reform in spite of her own lack of education. She is as completely right as the unions and the system they perpetuate are wrong — though that’s probably the way it has to be in a movie like this.

That’s one reason I think the cause of reform is better served by documentaries like The Cartel or Waiting for Superman than by a fictional tale like Won’t Back Down, however well-told, true-to-life or, as it is supposed to be, based on fact — by which is meant a single so-far successful effort to take advantage of the so-called “parent trigger law” in California. It is too easy to dismiss a movie like this as having stacked the deck against the status quo, even though I think it is, if anything, too sympathetic to the unions. So far as I know, there have been few signs of the pangs of conscience Mr Barnz attributes to Holly Hunter’s union leader, Evelyn Riske, in the adamantine opposition to parent-trigger laws and other quite reasonable and necessary reforms by such real-life counterparts as Randi Weingarten.

I understand the reason for this kid glove treatment, though I doubt that many union supporters will be persuaded of the case for the parent trigger by it. I also understand the reason for grafting on to the main story a romance between Jamie and a charismatic and dedicated teacher (Oscar Isaac) who is another one of those with a bad conscience about his support for the union — though I think it rather a distraction. Jamie’s heroism ought to be its own reward. Likewise the cute and vulnerable kids belonging to her and her teacher ally, played by Viola Davis, are probably inevitable, but they represent an oversimplification. Most of the victims of failing schools are not at-risk and learning disabled — and many aren’t at all cute. The reality of failing schools is not very well represented by adorable moppets eager to learn but being held back by negligent and uncaring teachers. A lot of it has to do with undisciplined and disruptive kids and unrealistic expectations on the teachers who have to deal with them.

All that having been said, however, I can’t feel any regret about all that the movie has done and will do to make people aware of the failings of so many of our public schools and of the only plausible path to doing anything about them, which is to encourage parents to demand change. I am also pleased to see that stars of the calibre of Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis and Holly Hunter are willing to defy the political orthodoxy of the media and the movie industry for the sake of what is inevitably being portrayed as a “right-wing” project like Won’t Back Down. Their doing so may even be a sign of a wider population which is beginning to understand that giving kids a decent education need not be a matter of partisan political conflict at all but something everybody, including the unions, ought to agree upon.

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