It’s not often that a major Hollywood movie with Academy Award–nominee actors gets picketed. But that’s what happened last week at the New York and Los Angeles premieres of Won’t Back Down, which stars Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis as a parent-teacher duo who use a “parent trigger” law to take over a failing public school, beating back the determined opposition of bureaucrats and the teachers’ union along the way. Those unions aren’t amused, and turned out dozens of protesters to complain the film treated them unfairly.
The nation’s film critics have also turned out in support of the unions, largely trashing the film for “politicizing” education issues. On the film site Rotten Tomatoes, only 18 percent of “top critics” have given it a favorable review, versus the 61 percent of the website’s users who gave it a thumbs-up. Most of the film critic complaints are political, not artistic.
Won’t Back Down is a David vs. Goliath story told with verve and brio, and it’s appropriate that its stars aren’t backing down because of the critics. Viola Davis told NBC News last week that “I welcome protests. I welcome discourse. . . . And you know what, in this movie the teacher at the end of the day is the hero. They save the day. And it’s a system that’s broken, that needs to be fixed.”
But that’s not what the film critics think. Ann Hornaday, the Washington Post’s movie maven, gave the film one star and sneered: “More than a portrait of spontaneous motherly outrage, it becomes clear that the movie has been designed as an anti-union, pro-charter screed, the fictional counterpart to the 2010 documentary ‘Waiting for Superman.’” She turned the rest of her review into a policy commentary by dinging the film because it “blithely passes over the questionable results from [school] takeovers, just as it glibly ignores the uneven track record of charter schools.”
A. O. Scott of the New York Times, who praised Michael Moore’, director of Fahrenheit 9-11, as “a credit to the republic,” called Won’t Back Down a piece of propaganda: “Pious expressions of concern for ‘the children’ are usually evidence of a political agenda in overdrive.” He laments that the film simplistically “pits a plucky, passionate band of parents and educators against a venal and intransigent cabal of labor bosses and their greedy, complacent rank-and-file minions.”
Other critics show their political colors even more blatantly in trashing the film. “The question isn’t how such a ham-fisted, clichéd and, frankly, stupefyingly simple-minded film got made. The question is: How did it recruit such a talented cast into its union-bashing ranks?” huffs Jeff Meyers of the Metro Times in Detroit. Andrew O’Hehir of Salon is even more scathing, calling the film “inept and bizarre, a set of right-wing, anti-union talking points disguised (with very limited success) as a mainstream motion-picture-type product.” The Minneapolis Star Tribune went so far as to say the film “is to school reform what ‘Reefer Madness’ is to drug policy . . . a story that is emotionally manipulative, dramatically crude, factually challenged hero/villain hokum.”
But one liberal critic, Rex Reed of the New York Observer, didn’t let the politics of the film get in the way of allowing him to enjoy a stirring story: “This is Norma Rae with chalk and erasers in place of a sewing machine, except for one major difference — this time it’s the unions that stand in the way of progress. With that in mind, it’s little surprise that political conservatives at the press screening I attended booed loudly. . . . As a message picture, its heart is in the right place.”
Maybe Won’t Back Down is just so effective that so many liberal film critics are trashing it in hopes of dissuading moviegoers from seeing it.