Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis team up to take on an ailing public education system in "Won't Back Down." Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman filed the following review.
Most of the muckraking Hollywood dramas we think of as classic, like "Norma Rae," "All the President’s Men, or Erin Brockovich, tend to draw clean and satisfying moral lines.
"Won’t Back Down," a movie about the quasi-disaster that is today’s American public education system, would like to be a "Norma Rae" style lump-in-the-throat rabble-rouser. The movie, to its credit, never denies the murky complexity of what’s gone wrong in our schools.
The film pins the malaise on many causes at once, from students mired in video games, to bad teachers, to stodgy curriculum, to good teachers who have sunk, over the years, into apathy.
The movie is set in Pittsburgh, where Jamie, a desperate single mother played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, learns that her dyslexic daughter is stuck in a dead-end classroom at John Adams Elementary School, one of the lowest-rated schools in the city. When she becomes a crusader, it's out of the sheer desire to get her daughter a decent education.
She teams up with a veteran teacher, played by Viola Davis, to try and re-launch the school with a more progressive program, and together, these two have to jump through a nightmare of bureaucratic hoops.
They also have to take on the teachers’ union, represented by Holly Hunter as an idealist who doesn’t realize how her own rigid union ideals have become part of the problem.
"Won’t Back Down" has already attracted heat from the teachers’ union, but the film doesn’t demonize the union so much as it recognizes -- correctly, in my view -- that the union now stands for lack of change. And lack of change cannot be the answer to our public education crisis.
Trying to cram a "Waiting For Superman"-style expose and a vintage Hollywood rabble-rouser into one movie, "Won’t Back Down" is awkward at times, yet it’s also passionate in a surprisingly smart way; it makes a real drama out of impossible issues.
It’s also nicely acted, especially by Viola Davis, who lays bare the inner war between devotion and despair that now defines too many of our teachers.