Won't Back Down

Blame the teachers — How did this blatantly anti-union, pro-charter piece of propaganda hack work get an all-star cast?

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Matt Stone and Trey Parker's South Park has given rise to the term "underwear gnome economics." In an episode during Season 2, there are a group of gnomes who steal undergarments in order gain riches. Their plan is explained thusly: Phase 1: steal underpants. Phase 2: ?. Phase 3: Profit.

Daniel Barnz's Won't Back Down follows the same game plan for dealing with America's failing education system. Or it can be described thusly: Phase 1: enlist angry, low-income parents to take control of a school by tearing up teacher union contracts and throwing out bureaucrats. Phase 2: ?. Phase 3: cure dyslexia.

The question isn't how such a ham-fisted, clichéd and, frankly, stupefyingly simple-minded film got made. The question is: How did it attract the talents of Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis and Holly Hunter into its union-bashing ranks? Never mind the fact that Won't Back Down never seriously addresses ever-decreasing school funding or the low wages of teachers or the avalanches of standardized tests or the inequality of educational resources or the politicization of school textbooks or the social agendas of meddling school boards or our country's eroding respect for science and critical thinking — it's the fault of greedy unions and soulless administrators. If they'd just get out of the way, we'd have joyously creative elementary schools where ukulele-wielding teachers (in this case, Oscar Isaac) would finally be able to put in unpaid extra hours to help our struggling kids succeed.

Don't get me wrong: Won't Back Down is made slickly enough to charm and weep and outrage its way under your skin, setting up callous and manipulative union leaders and odious tenured teachers as mustache-twirling villains for us to despise. They've enlisted a pretty good group of actors to do it, and, in an inspired bit of character recalibration, cast a white woman (Gyllenhaal) as the impoverished yet spunky activist parent and a black woman (Davis) as the upper-middle-class suburbanite teacher (her husband is some kind of hotshot architect).

The opening and closing moments of the movie make it perfectly clear how far the filmmakers are willing to go with their pro-charter school propaganda. Things kick off in the third grade classroom of adorable yet dyslexic moppet Malia Fitzpatrick (Emily Alyn Lind), who is struggling to read a sentence on the blackboard. Around her, her classmates play video games on cell phones, listen to music on iPods, or nap at their desks. A wantonly uninterested teacher is preoccupied with texting her friends. Later she allows Malia's backpack (which her low wage-earning mother invested $59, in we're told) to be torn apart by a class bully and then, if her villainy weren't obvious enough, denies Malia a trip to the bathroom, causing a humiliating accident. In a nutshell, the failures of the American educational system have been laid bare and dropped at the feet of underperforming teachers and the bureaucrats who enable them.

The film's final scene is a triumphant school assembly, where charter designation has turned austere and crumbling hallways into colorfully decorated shrines to learning and achievement. Malia is asked to read before her happy-faced classmates. She does so wonderfully, having no trouble with the word "permission" but stumbling over the word "hope." Can you guess what Won't Back Down's final message will be?

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