Won't Back Down is a message movie and message movies usually don't play well. That's a shame in this case because Won't Back Down humanizes a growing national awareness that some teachers unions are standing in the way of improved education. This reality now persuades enough liberals that a group called Democrats for Education Reform has become a powerful ally of candidates in both parties who are willing to buck the teachers unions in supporting school choice.
In recent decades the teachers unions, drawing on the mandatory funding of members, have exerted more clout in state races than any other lobby and can defeat any reforms from any source. So it is notably that at last some wealthy supporters of school reform are prepared to come to the obvious conclusion: the only way to defeat the union-backed candidates--the ones who talk about reform, but never deliver it--is to match or exceed the campaign contributions of the unions, regardless of the party affiliation of the real reform candidates. Furthermore, the reform groups have to be single-interest, just as the teachers unions are.
Usually the unions still win. in addition to direct campaign funds they can provide campaign workers to get out the vote. That's why even the school reform forces in Chicago, with the leadership of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, had to compromise in the recent strike. That's why the unions have been successful in preventing school choice in Washington, DC, dashing the hopes of poor black families there--the supposed rock bed of the Democratic base. But reform is succeeding in certain California locals and other places, and the willingness of pro-reform liberals to run candidates in Democratic primaries and to back pro-reform Republicans in final elections is a large part of the reason.
Won't Back Down, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis, tells a human interest story set in this public policy issue. The story is credible and while the villain is the teachers union that fights to prevent a failing elementary school from being turned over to a group of teachers and parents who want to start a charter school, the characterization of the union is not the unfair stereotype that liberal critics charge. Union leaders do get to make their case, it's just that the case is not about the well-being of kids but the will-being of the teachers, or rather the union.
Won't Back Down actually makes teachers its heroes. That may be its commercial flaw. The Gyllenhaal character is a parent, but, overall, parents are incidental to the drama, just as they are in real life. This is a teachers film, one that pits highly motivated teachers against slackers and time-servers--and also against the bureaucracy that is the most entrenched interest of all.
Parents are more numerous, but they are committed to the system mainly because they are interested in their own kids. They tend to lose comittment to change once their kids grow up and leave the system. That means that the smartest, ablest parents become experts on reform just before they "graduate". Of course, the wealthy parents don't bother fighting the system; they just send their kids to private schools. That further weakens the forces of reform.
Indeed, committed teachers, who are the real soul of Won't Back Down and could be the real core of long term school reform. At last there is a growing body of foundation and civic support that is investing time and money in reform because poorly performing schools are hurting the economy, not to mention the culture. So reform minded teachers are not alone.
But even these two groups together are probably not enough to provide enough of an audience a fictional movie with a positive change message. The film is well crafted and acted. See it while you can.