Most of the muckraking Hollywood movies we think of as classic tend to sketch their dramas inside very clean and satisfying moral lines. Norma Rae was about a feisty union organizer fighting for basic workers’ rights, All the President’s Men was about two fearless newspaper reporters bringing down a corrupt president, and Erin Brockovich was about a heroic ordinary woman battling corporate malfeasance. Won’t Back Down, a drama about the quasi-disaster that is today’s American public education system, would very much like to be a Norma Rae-style lump-in-the-throat rabble rouser, and to a good degree it succeeds. Yet the movie — to its credit — never denies the murky complexity of what’s gone wrong in our schools. The moral lines here are by no means clean or easy to read. The film rightly pins our educational malaise on a great many diverse causes, from students mired in videogames to bad teachers to overly stodgy curriculum to good teachers who have sunk, over the years, into a kind of grinding hopelessness that just about anyone in their position might share.
The movie is set in Pittsburgh, where Jamie, a financially strapped single mother played by Maggie Gyllenhaal (she works as a bartender as well as an auto-lot secretary), learns that her dyslexic daughter, Malia (Emily Alyn Lind), has been stuck in a dead-end classroom at John Adams, one of the lowest-rated schools in the city. After failing to win a coveted spot in a school lottery (a heartbreaking scene that sets the film’s tone of hope teetering on rickety opportunities for success), Jamie decides to mount a fight to improve the school she’s stuck with. But it’s not because she gives a damn about being a ”crusader.” She’s acting out of a sheer, desperate, practical desire to get her daughter a decent education. She teams up with a gifted but morosely worn-down veteran teacher at John Adams, Nona (Viola Davis), who is trying to dig herself out of her own hole of apathy. And together, these two ignite a local movement to re-launch the school with a new, progressive program. They have to jump through a nightmarish array of bureaucratic hoops, which the film portrays in agonizing detail. They also have to take on the teachers’ union, represented by Holly Hunter as a manipulative idealist who doesn’t realize how much her own cherished orthodoxies have, over the years, become part of the problem.
Won’t Back Down has already attracted its share of heat from the nation’s teachers’ unions, so let me say up front that the movie doesn’t demonize the union so much as it recognizes the point that director Davis Guggenheim made powerfully in his 2010 documentary Waiting for ”Superman”: that what the union now stands for — among other things, many of them good — is a lack of change. And Won’t Back Down says that whatever your feelings about the subject, lack of change cannot be the answer to our public-education crisis. Trying to cram an informational exposé and a vintage inspirational awards-bait weeper into one movie, Won’t Back Down is awkward at times, yet it’s also passionate in a surprisingly smart way. It makes a genuine drama out of impossible issues.
It is also, for the most part, very nicely acted. Gyllenhaal brings perhaps a bit too much movie-star-as-working-class-mom radiance to her role, yet she also makes you feel the agony of what Jamie is up against: the terror that her daughter is going to be doomed from grade school on. Marianne Jean-Baptiste, as the chief Pittsburgh school administrator, does an incisive and witty turn as an ice-cold bureaucrat who still has a trace of fire in her belly, and Viola Davis, in a brilliantly felt and thought-out performance, makes Nona by turns contained, furious, depressed, and stubbornly on point. Davis goes way beyond noble-educator sanctimony to show you the tug-of-war between devotion and despair that now defines too many of our teachers. Won’t Back Down digs into such a complicated, no-easy-solution subject that I doubt the film will attract a very big audience, despite its genuine rouser of a climactic scene set at a school-board meeting. Yet it actually goes a step further than many of Hollywood’s topical dramas by leaving you with something real. B+