Of course, you wouldn’t know that from the film’s press material, which avoids the word “union” like the plague. (Financier Walden Media was also responsible for the pro-school privatization documentary “Waiting for Superman.”) Or from co-writer (with Brin Hill) and director Daniel Barnz, who has been inexplicably quoted as saying he is “extremely pro-union.” And the truth is, if “Won’t Back Down” were an exciting, involving story, its political orientation wouldn’t be an issue. But it isn’t.
Pittsburgh single mom Jamie Fitzpatrick (Gyllenhaal) isn’t thinking about unions when the film starts. She’s trying to hold her salt-of-the-earth life together, juggling not one but two impeccably blue-collar jobs (used-car lot receptionist by day, bartender by night) while worrying that her daughter Malia (Emily Alyn Lind) isn’t getting a good education.
In fact, young Malia is getting the world’s worst education, courtesy of Adams Elementary, labeled a failing school for 19 years and counting. Worse than that, Malia has a monster of malfeasance for her teacher, a woman who, brazenly protected by union seniority, texts while her students create chaos, refuses to let them go to the bathroom and insists that union rules prevent her from working past 3 p.m. (American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten flatly calls this particular claim “an egregious lie.”)
Equally unhappy about her life is Nona Alberts (Viola Davis, vibrant as ever even in a thankless role). She’s an Adams teacher but is so troubled by the school’s failings, as well as a host of personal problems (she and her husband, played by “The Wire’s” Lance Reddick, are splitting), that she walks through the halls like a zombie.
Desperate to improve her daughter’s chances, Jamie gets a break when someone at the board of education tells her about a new law that allows a combination of parents and teachers to take over a school and turn it around. (Similar statutes called “parent trigger” laws do exist in several states, including California, but no group has been able to put them into practice yet.)
Nothing if not determined, not to say manic, when her child’s welfare is at stake, Jamie decides to spearhead a school takeover movement, and she steamrollers Nona to be Ms. Inside to her Ms. Outside.
Never mind that everyone tells them the task is flat-out impossible, that the deck is stacked against them, that it takes years and years even to get to ‘No.’ Jamie, powered by an enthusiasm level that would shame the Energizer Bunny, won’t back down. If you are worried even the tiniest bit about her chances despite this tsunami of obstacles, Hollywood has a bridge in Brooklyn they’d love for you to buy.
Jamie even involves her brand new boyfriend Michael (Oscar Isaac), whose use of music in the classroom magically makes him the only effective teacher Adams has. Michael is one of a few characters who half-heartedly mouth pro-union platitudes in a feeble attempt to give labor equal time, but his enthusiasm for solidarity isn’t fated to last.
That’s because unions turn out to be the most pernicious of all the obstacles to healthy schools, worse even than the stick-in-the-mud school board. While no one, not even unions themselves these days, denies that there are things that must be changed about how they operate, the notion of them as total evil only makes perfect sense to companies that believe in unionless, private charter schools that increase profits by paying teachers whatever they can get away with.
The union in “Won’t Back Down,” the Teachers Assn. of Pennsylvania or TAP, is fictitious, as well it might be given the awful things it stoops to, including vicious character assassination and attempts to manipulate Jamie by appealing to the best interests of her beloved child. For shame, unions! For shame!
Though the film’s pernicious propagandistic bias is irritating and misleading, it can’t be overemphasized that what is really wrong with this film is how feeble it is dramatically. When Nora is trying to decide if she should work with Jamie, she remembers her mother’s question: “What are you going to do with your one and only life?” Anyone who values their one and only life would be well-advised not to spend two hours of it here.