Two years ago director Davis Guggenheim’s documentary Waiting for “Superman” stirred the public education pot and drew the ire of teachers unions everywhere. So when American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten says the new movie Won’t Back Down is comparatively worse, you know filmmakers have hit a nerve.
Won’t Back Down is presented as a battle with bureaucracy, but the main plot tees up as a fight between involved parents and organized labor. Jamie Fitzpatrick (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is an undereducated, often disheveled mom who ferociously battles for her 8-year-old daughter’s education, finally recruiting teacher Nona Alberts (Viola Davis) to help turn Adams Elementary School into a charter school.
The school has received a failing grade for the last 19 years, but that doesn’t stop the teachers union from swooping in to defend jobs instead of children—using intimidation, rallies, and character assassination to get its point across.
Inspired by actual events, the movie presents organized labor as the primary obstacle to progress, yet also humanizes pro-labor advocates. Holly Hunter plays a union rep who wistfully reflects on the good old days when as a child she went to union meetings with her family. But things have changed, and Hunter’s colleague (Ned Eisenberg) is determined to stem the tide of anti-union sentiment around the country.
Rated PG for language, the most offensive part of the movie might be when Fitzpatrick’s 8-year-old daughter calls her “stupid” and receives no apparent punishment. But the scene conveys the frustration both parents and children experience in failing schools.
The film’s message of hope will likely resonate with most audiences—a result writer/director Daniel Barnz and the cast insist was their goal. But teachers unions aren’t buying it, and for the most part, neither is the mainstream media. The film has received some brutal reviews, and union forces have protested screenings in New York and Charlotte, N.C.
If the protests continue, organized labor may make Barnz’s point better than he could have himself.