‘Won’t Back Down’: Fighting straw men

September 27, 2012

It’s one thing when documentaries like Davis Guggenheim’s “Waiting for ‘Superman’” and Madeleine Sackler’s much better “The Lottery” look at problems in public education and offer some solutions (such as charter schools).

It’s something else when a manipulative drama like “Won’t Back Down” tries to lay the blame for all the problems at the feet of uncaring teachers and wage-grubbing unions. Never mind its bare relation to reality; it’s just too easy to lead people with Machiavellian pieces of entertainment like this.

Written and directed by Daniel Barnz (“Phoebe in Wonderland”), “Won’t Back Down” is set in a poorer neighborhood of Pittsburgh’s Hill District. Jamie Fitzpatrick (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a single mom who’s second-grade daughter is dyslexic; but she can’t get the kind of attention she needs at the neighborhood public school when Jamie is forced to send her there because tuition is too high at the private school the daughter had been in.

Her daughter, in fact, is in a failing school, in a classroom with an actively bad teacher, one who has no interest in helping anyone, let alone a child with a learning disability. It’s an effective and vicious caricature of those legions of people who only become teachers for the cushy salaries and the security of tenure, no matter how terrible you are.

Jamie’s frustration with the school leads her to Nona Alberts (Viola Davis), a teacher at the school who has similar complaints about its policies. They eventually discover that there is a “parent-trigger law” that allows parents who are unhappy with their failing school to take control and refashion it to succeed.

But their activism brings into focus the real villain of this piece: not austerity hawks who slice education budgets to shreds so the wealthy can keep their low tax rates; not inattentive parents who barely socialize their children; not school boards that acquiesce to religious zealots to water down science curriculums.

No, of course, in this era of Tea Party-fueled antipathy toward organized labor, the real villain is the teachers’ union, which is more concerned with its members and their benefits than in the well-being of the children. It’s the teachers’ union head (Ned Eisenberg) who distributes ugly flyers making sensational charges about the leaders of the school-takeover movement.

No effort is made to address the larger question: why this school is failing and what can be done to keep whatever takes its place from suffering the same fate. Nor does the film look at the potential for ideological take-overs, ones bent on removing evolution or sex education from a curriculum, that laws like this enable.

No, it’s all about those greedy, lazy teachers who would rather feather their own nests at the expense of all those concerned parents. No doubt it was those same teachers who refused to parent those kids when it came time to teach the discipline necessary to succeed in school.

Gyllenhaal and Davis are a likable team, personable, steadfast, tough and tender. No doubt they mean well here – who, after all, can argue that school-improvement and a sharper focus on education opportunity for all is a bad idea?

But that’s not what “Won’t Back Down” is about. It’s about promoting the idea that, somehow, the blame for everything that’s wrong with education can be laid at the feet of teachers and teachers’ unions – and not a growing segment of our society that seems determined to champion anti-intellectualism. It’s so much easier than dealing with the complications of reality.

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