The (More Than) 400-Word Review: Won’t Back Down
By Sean Collier
September 28, 2012

They're watching Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog.

Editor's Note: Every week, Sean Collier posts his Quick Hits on his Facebook page. These are (ordinarily) 400 word reviews that quickly identify whether a movie is worth watching. Starting this week, BOP will be posting them for you as a welcome respite from our usual verbosity.

Won't Back Down

It’s not as though we’ve rid ourselves of propaganda in America. Cable news and some corners of documentary filmmaking are riddled with one-sided accounts; no matter your political stripe, you shouldn’t have much trouble finding a loud, brazen voice you disagree with in the mass media. What has become more rare, however, is propaganda in fiction; morality plays made specifically to push this or that agenda.

Some would disagree, but by and large, Hollywood studios aren’t interested in forwarding a way of thinking. They’re singularly focused on making money, and always have been; whatever social stance sells the most tickets will always be the one that Tinseltown backs.

So when you want to make a movie that paints unions as evil, defensive, backwards obstructionists and promotes the glory of private interests, you have to pay for it yourself. And that’s exactly what billionaire Philip Anschutz, a proponent of privatizing all public schools as a mean to smash teachers unions, decided to do. Co-produced by Anschutz’ Walden Media and 20th Century Fox, Won’t Back Down pits a plucky single mother and downtrodden teacher (Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis) against a school that seems singularly focused on making dyslexic kids cry.

That’s not a joke, by the way. Gyllenhaal’s character has a dyslexic daughter, and her teacher (a staunch union supporter) looks up from her cell phone only to berate the poor girl for her disability; at one point, she forces the child to urinate in her pants because she doesn’t want to give out a hall pass.

Sound manipulative? Oh, it is. While I strongly disagree with the politics behind Won’t Back Down — and it should be noted that, despite several attempts, no employment of the controversial Parent Trigger Law depicted in the film has ever been anything like successful — I won’t pan the film simply because I feel differently then the filmmakers. I’ll pan the film because it employs every cheap, hackneyed filmmaking-101 trick in the book to deceive and manipulate the audience, rather than actually make a coherent argument.

Scenes in the nefarious public school are shot like sequences from low-rent slashers. Children weep, unprovoked, at moments pivotal to your opinion of our heroines, begging you to sympathize. Rallies from the anti-union forces are lit like a summer’s evening; meetings by the standing brass might as well be filmed in medieval dungeons. Perhaps most alarmingly, the union members are clothed and draped with Nazi colors and iconography.

Ironic, since Triumph of the Will is a close artistic cousin to Won’t Back Down.

Regardless of your political stripe or opinion on education reform, this is not the way to facilitate debate. Change, improvement and understanding are fostered through open and honest dialogue, not obfuscation and deception. Film can certainly help to rally people around an issue. The filmmakers and financiers behind Won’t Back Down know that well. Unfortunately, they chose not to present their case on its merits; rather, they opted to tug at the heartstrings, scare and shock. That’s not opening a dialogue; that’s harassment.

Oh, and by the way: it’s also a terrible film. By turns dull and patronizing, it occasionally reaches the emotional force of something on the Lifetime network, but that’s about it. Gyllenhaal and Davis, who should know better than to get involved in a mess like this, give strong performances; unfortunately, trying to take much away from their efforts is like trying to focus on a beautiful painting while riding a crashing bus. As for director Daniel Barnz, his particular skill set would be better employed in music videos, snuff films or softcore pornography.

You don’t need to lean left to hate Won’t Back Down; you need only pay attention. It is a film with a pronounced disdain for the audience, produced by those utterly convinced that a heaping serving of maudlin pap can fool the rubes. Buying a ticket would be admitting one’s own gullibility. No one is dumb enough for that.