Topical movies — essays in film about current events — make all sorts of problems for themselves and for critics. The topical movie currently showing in town is called “Won’t Back Down,” which suggests action this sort of film really can’t by definition provide.
“Won’t Back Down” features Maggie Gyllenhaal doing her best late hippie-chick impersonation and Viola Davis, who became known by playing the mother of a school child in “Trust,” a movie which pretended to be about pedophilia among Roman Catholic priests. Actually “Trust” was about a lot more than that.
I’m not sure “Won’t Back Down” is about anything any bigger than the question it announces as its subject: Can parents and teachers seize control of weak public schools currently run by lethargic bureaucracies and self-interested unions? Gyllenhaal is the case’s parent. Davis is the teacher.
Each has a student who is not doing well in an awful Pittsburgh public elementary school. The majority of teachers employed there, we eventually find out, want to do more to help their charges but are held back by contract details intended to protect incompetent instructors. The film suggests teachers in the district earn tenure after two years of service. The bad teachers are setting a horrible tone for the whole system.
Administrators are uninterested in putting themselves out to help the students. The district has erected massive bureaucratic obstacles to keep parents from taking advantage of politically-mandated school take-over legal provisions. But the parent, all energy and grin, and the wary teacher begin the process of turning Adams School into a “charter school,” one still funded by the district but free of union contracts.
The operation of the union in the story takes up a considerable amount of the film’s running time, and the film has a little trouble providing the teachers’ organization with excuses for its leaders’ actions, including making threats, misleading members, and attacking the characters of campaigning teachers.
Here is an example of the weakness. Holly Hunter plays a union functionary who tries to bribe Gyllenhaal by offering to send her daughter to a successful and high-toned private school. Then after the school board makes its decision on the charter school petition, she quits her union job, apparently as an act of conscience. Too late. Too late.
The film is a little weak, too, when it comes to describing how a charter school is going to be different than Adams School was under the existing regime. They’ll get rid of the selfish teachers, and that’s basically it.
That would be good, of course. But the movie also contains an admission of something anyone who has taught or sat in a class knows: education works when the teacher is enthusiastic about the material he is supposed to be teaching. Not enthusiastic about teaching techniques or union rules or any reorganization system, but enthusiastic and informed about history or writing or algebra or chemistry. Charter schools without self-improving and passionate teachers will be just as bad as are the ones we have.
What is most surprising about “Won’t Back Down” is that it manages to keep the viewer’s attention for its couple of hours. It is almost all talk. Movies are usually a lousy medium for talk. But Davis and Gyllenhaal are talented. And the subject is one of persistent interest to Americans. We want to know how to make our public education system work well, which is to say we want our children to learn in school. Now.