Aaron Regunberg: New Education Film is ‘Shamelessly Manipulative’

Friday, October 05, 2012


Last week, the film Won’t Back Down came out in wide release. Long awaited by those involved in what I call the “corporate education reform” movement, the movie stars Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis, who play a disillusioned parent-teacher team that utilizes a “parent trigger” law—an ALEC-backed rightwing policy I’ve written about previously—to take over their failing school.

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Unfortunately for the film’s financer, conservative billionaire Phil Anschutz (yes, that’s the same Anschutz who funded Colorado’s 1990s-era anti-gay constitutional amendment and the anti-marriage equality Institute for American Values), Won’t Back Down has been a colossal flop. The movie actually broke the record for the worst opening of a film that appeared in more than 2,500 theaters. And, in what is undoubtedly a disappointment to the astroturf organizations like Parent Revolution that were hoping to use the film to support privatization efforts around the country, Won’t Back Down has been almost universally panned by critics, getting a feeble 33 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and an even more sorrowful 18 percent from the site’s designated top critics.

But something interesting has been happening in these film reviews. While they certainly focus on Won’t Back Down’s poor writing, awkward story-telling, and other critiques of why the movie is simply not a well-made cinematic piece, many take the analysis a step further. Many actually point out the connections between the film’s financial backers and the conservative political agenda it so propagandistically advances. It’s not every day that mainstream film critics make my education reform arguments for me, so I wanted to aggregate what some of the nation’s most well-respected critics have said about the movie, and perhaps save readers $10 and their Friday night.

My favorite review introduction was that of the New York Times’ piece , which began cheekily but incisively: “If The Simpsons has taught us anything, it is that pious expressions of concern for ‘the children’ are usually evidence of a political agenda in overdrive. Won’t Back Down presents an especially blatant example of this rule. A movie that insists, repeatedly and at high volume, that ‘it’s all about the kids’ might just cause you to wonder what else it is about, and this one is not shy about showing its ideological hand.” The review ends by simply saying, “Our children deserve better.”

Roger Ebert pulled no punches in taking the movie to task for its one-sided spin, describing it as “a film where typecasting and color-coding makes it easy to predict which characters are good or bad.” He also makes a very good point—which I think could be applied to the whole conservative educational movement that created Won’t Back Down—about the lack of any real attempt by the movie to grapple with the incredibly complex question of what, exactly, goes into a successful school turnaround. “In this scenario, based on the proverbial ‘true story’ that isn’t even cited in the film’s end credits…the good guys take over a Pittsburgh grade school. What happens afterward is not very informative; we get one shot of the corridor walls of the new school, papered with student artwork.” Ebert sums it up perfectly when he said, “It all sounds so simple—and it is, because the movie makes it simplistic.”

NPR’s film review doesn’t mince words, either. “Won’t Back Down is something less honorable—a propaganda piece with blame on its mind,” the review says, before giving an effective analysis of the flick’s rightwing agenda. “The movie is funded by Walden Media, a company owned by conservative mogul Philip Anschutz, who advocates creationist curricula in schools. Walden also co-produced the controversial pro-charter school documentary Waiting for Superman, so the outfit is not without axes to grind.” The film does not tackle “the fact that many charter schools have failed to produce better-educated kids…nor is the movie interested in the vexed question of what makes a good teacher.” Rather, the “sloganeering rhetoric of Won’t Back Down” is focused more on “waving off all talk about the role of poverty and inequality in under-resourced schools and underachieving pupils.”

Salon’s piece directly asks the question a lot of us have been wondering—what made the movie’s talented actors believe that this was a project worthy of their time and skills? “So teachers’ unions don’t care about kids. This is what I took away from the inept and bizarre Won’t Back Down, a set of right-wing anti-union talking points disguised (with very limited success) as a mainstream motion-picture-type product. Someone needs to launch an investigation into what combination of crimes, dares, alcoholic binges and lapses in judgment got Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal into this movie. Neither of them seems likely to sympathize with its thinly veiled labor-bashing agenda and, way more to the point, I thought they had better taste.” It follows up with the always-effective line, “The big picture is that the movie is unbelievable crap.”

Finally, because I know I can’t go on all day with this, we’ll end with a review from the Los Angeles Times. Its take on Won’t Back Down was not pretty. “This poor film is so shamelessly manipulative and hopelessly bogus it will make you bite your tongue in regret and despair,” it begins. “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.” It concludes with a plea: “Anyone who values their one and only life would be well-advised not to spend two hours of it here.”

The mainstream blowback against Won’t Back Down is significant, in my opinion, because the primary critiques of the film are all part and parcel of a corporate education reform movement that shares many of its fundamental traits. This is a movement that, like Won’t Back Down, is largely funded by conservative billionaires who have both long- and short-term interests in the outcome of the education reform debate. It is a movement that relies on the propaganda of “it’s all for the kids” when it very clearly is not. And it’s a movement that sets up fictionalized scapegoats for the complex problems of public education in an effort to distract from the larger issues of poverty and inequality. In short, it’s an unproductive movement perfectly encapsulated in this unproductive movie, and if at the very least Won’t Back Down has taught some people to think a little more carefully about privatization and other “quick fixes,” well, then I guess it has its value after all.


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