'Won't Back Down'. Controversial, important but not very good

September 28, 2012 

I’m reviewing Won’t Back Down. However, some movie critics and critics of the movie outside of movie critic circles are tying it to the 2010 documentary Waiting for Superman so I, too, am tying it to the documentary.

Few people caught Waiting for Superman. It got released in major markets, had very little promotion, did mediocre business and disappeared. Find it on Netflix or at a local DVD rental store. Waiting for Superman was the best documentary of 2010 but got completely ignored by film organizations handing out awards because of the perception of being anti-union.

It is and isn’t. The film’s point, however, isn’t to hurt the union. It’s to get kids the best possible education. And isn’t that the reason we spend billions of dollars every year on schools?

By the way, the Oscar in 2010 and most of the accolades went to the excellent, and very important, Great Recession, financial meltdown explanation, Inside Job. It deserved the Oscar but Waiting for Superman also deserved consideration it did not get.

Info in the opening credits tell you Won’t Back Down is based on a true story. “Loosely” is an adverb that ought to be attached. The movie’s naysayers might even add the word “very” to “loosely” as the plot walks you through ineffective schools, debates quality education, does an exploration of new ways to educate, looks at ineffective and just plain bad teachers, an impossible bureaucracy and two courageous women who take on the system and win.

The rub is the two women. Their story set in Pittsburg, PA didn’t happen. The closest an investigation gets you to “true” is an effort to privatize schools via a law that some states have passed called the Parent Trigger. It’s supporting groups want change in schools. What you won’t find when you look at efforts to enact the Parent Trigger is two “courageous, concerned” women.

Won’t Back Down supports the idea of privatizing some schools. So does Waiting for Superman.

Those wanting the privatization of schools, or at the very least serious changes in our education system have been labeled right-wing by teachers unions and union supporters. To counter the arguments of detractors, the promoters of change contend the work is being done because the system is broken and desperately needs fixed.

So the discussion begins.

And discussion and debate — in this case — and in most highly charged political positions, is a good thing. The movie, Won’t Back Down — however — is not. Outside of the position it presents and the questions it asks, the film is a dud.

But first, and before I move on with more about the movie, I need to point out that I love teachers. They’re often under-appreciated and are always underpaid. Some of my best friends teach. Many of them read this column. To them I say, you have the most important job in this country. Your pay isn’t close to high enough, your sacrifices continue to go unnoticed and you get no, or very little respect. That ought not be. You should run schools, not overpaid bureaucrats and administrators, or in too many cases, idiot parents.

Won’t Back Down has already ticked off teachers unions and union supporters. It should. The film assassinates the unions.

At the same time, the documentary, and to a certain extent, Won’t Back Down ask good questions. Both films present important points of view. Are they accurate? Are they correct? I’m not qualified to answer but both elicit discussion and discussion about education — as mentioned earlier — is worthy. So is parent involvement in schools which Won’t Back Down also pushes.

Unfortunately, the discussion is led by writer/director Daniel Barnz and his co-writer Brin Hill who in a heavy-handed, simplistic and dragged-out way, force us to wade through a plodding plot that explores this complex issue.

Kudos to stars Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal. Both actresses could stand and stare at a camera for two-hours and be better than 90% of their peers. Davis and Gyllenhaal give riveting, compelling performances and while the only reason to see this, their film isn’t worthy of being seen.

Sorry unions. Sorry teachers this line of inquiry upsets. The questions Won’t Back Down asks and problems it poses are worthy. If you don’t end up seeing this, do rent Waiting for Superman.

And let the discussion not only begin, but continue.

Mr. Movie rating: 2 stars

Director: Daniel Barnz
Stars: Viola Davis, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Rosie Perez, Holly Hunter, Ving Rhames, Bill Nunn

Rated PG for mature themes. It’s playing at Regal’s Columbia Center 8, the Fairchild Cinemas 12 and at Walla Walla Grand Cinemas.

5 stars to 4 1/2 stars: Must see on the big screen

4 stars to 3 1/2 stars: Good film, see it if it's your type of movie.
3 stars to 2 1/2 stars: Wait until it comes out on DVD.
2 stars to 1 star: Don't bother.
0 stars: Speaks for itself.

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