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I Would, In Fact, Recommend Backing Down

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Without even knowing about Dr. Noisewater’s pending guest post, I decided to make a major sacrifice for our beloved readership: I ordered Won’t Back Down from the fine folks at Netflx.   And, actually, strictly speaking it’s not a shitty miracle, because while it certainly had no chance of having any aesthetic quality, appeal to critics who aren’t paid shills, or commercial success, the reason it got funded is hardly a mystery: it’s a wingnut loss leader, like The Weekly Standard.   Anyway, the late Roger Ebert noted that Caligula “is not good art, it is not good cinema, and it is not good porn.”   Won’t Back Down is not good entertainment, it’s not good middlebrow pseudo-art, and it’s not even good ideological porn for people who haven’t figured out that Michelle Rhee is a fraud.

As a movie-qua-movie, it’s pretty much what the reviews suggested: The Replacements meets Waiting for Superman, written by the person living in a torn cardboard box under the bridge’s Aaron Sorkin. Only not quite, because described like that it sounds like it could verge on so-bad-it’s-good territory. The Replacements is good for a jaw-dropping laugh if you catch 15 minutes or so during one of its 50 weekly screenings on TBS, and Studio 60 and The Newsroom can be hate-watched in small doses. A few scenes do reach this level of being so horrible as to be mildly entertaining. In particular, the scene where the supercilious union boss starts off providing some Fox News balance by giving his co-workers an unnecessary lecture about how bad unions have it in the current political context, and then proceeds to explain that he’ll start caring about children when they start paying union dues might be the most transcendentally atrocious didacticism since those poor schoolkids were locked in a room with Bradley Whitford in the 9/11 episode of the West Wing. And the scene where the less supercilious union boss played by Holly Hunter implausibly tries to buy off Maggie Gyllenhaal is close. But mostly, the movie is more like, I dunno, Lions for Lambs or a teen drama on a Christian TV station: didactic in a much more dreary way. Even the good actors can’t really do anything with their speeches, and in particular Rosie Perez — whose sole responsibility seems to be to cheerfully approve the dishonest position papers read by the other characters — is hung out to dry. And even worse, the thing is padded out to over two hours with a pro forma quasi-romantic suplot and a separation/child custody subplot (wasting not only Viola Davis but The Wire‘s Lance Reddick) that would have to be a lot less lazy and cliched to merit being dignified with the label “pro forma.” And if you expected the movie to end up with a sports-movie conclusion in which council vote comes down to a final wavering swing vote that decides to Do the Right Thing, you’re right!

As goes without saying, as propaganda the move is also mind-numbingly stupid. The movie’s only decent-if-heavy-handed scenes — involving a pretty tyrant teacher terrorizing Gyllenhaal’s daughter — could be the basis of a real movie, and Gyllenhaal is able to convey some of the desperation inherent in having your child trapped in a bad educational situation. Even being used as a crude manipulative device in simple-minded propaganda these scenes are affecting. But from this basis, as with most school “reform” arguments, there’s nothing but assuming can openers. And, even worse, the can openers being assumed (1.Pay teachers less and eliminate the employment protections that help compensate for the low pay. 2. ????? 3. Everyone will have a great teacher!) don’t make any logical sense on their own terms. Worse, the gimmick of the parents taking over the schools manages to elide all of the profit-taking there is to be done when education is privatized. (The teachers in the movie are constantly being informed that they shouldn’t care about money because their job is about THE CHILDREN. Needless to say, though, if you want to attract a third Associate Vice Provost of Marketing Services and Strategic Dynamism, you’d better be offering a salary in at least the 98th percentile if you’re going to attract anyone good.) Not only does this movie have no chance of converting anyone, the ice-cream-castles-in-the-air assumptions about charter schools are so crude and unfounded that even supporters may wonder if they’re being sold a bill of goods.

In conclusion, I’ve seen An American Carol, and I’ve seen Won’t Back Down. If your Glenn Beck-worshiping relatives are in town and you’re conflict-adverse, I’d screen the former. It’s no funnier, but it’s about as competently executed and it’s over more quickly.

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  • Irony for me is that when I was involved in a very nasty newspaper strike in Detroit in the 90’s, during which we were frequently and sometimes very brutally attacked by paramilitaries hired by Gannett and Knight Ridder, the song constantly playing on the picket lines was “Won’t Back Down.”

  • TribalistMeathead

    “And, even worse, the can openers being assumed (1.Pay teachers less and eliminate the employment protections that help compensate for the low pay. 2. ????? 3. Everyone will have a great teacher!) don’t make any logical sense on their own terms.”

    I’m pretty sure it’s the beatings-will-continue-until-morale-improves approach to management: If you lower pay and eliminate employment protections (make the job less cushy in general), all teachers will become great teachers, because….where else are they gonna find a job that pays $42K a year to someone with a master’s degree, I guess.

    As for the whole thing about the parents taking over the school, well, no parent who’s had a child in Cub Scouts or on a t-ball team is going to buy that argument.

    • “As for the whole thing about the parents taking over the school, well, no parent who’s had a child in Cub Scouts or on a t-ball team is going to buy that argument.”

      Word. It actually does have the same problem The Replacements has in this regard, which is taking the “anyone can do this job” thing to absurd extremes. Except The Replacements manages to be reasonably funny as a result.

      • TribalistMeathead

        Because it didn’t take itself nearly as seriously (e.g. hiring strippers as cheerleaders)

        • That’s it! We just need to hire strippers as teachers!

          • Davis X. Machina

            Now that‘s synergy. It’s the kind of thing that you could parlay into a fortune on the professional-development circuit. Except it’s already been done

            • Pooh

              LEAVE VARSITY BLUES ALONE

    • NonyNony

      If you lower pay and eliminate employment protections (make the job less cushy in general), all teachers will become great teachers, because….where else are they gonna find a job that pays $42K a year to someone with a master’s degree, I guess.

      I think that the actual thought process is more along the lines of “there are bad teachers because they’re lazy and protected by unions. If you eliminate the protections then the lazy ones can get fired and only the good teachers will be left.”

      Which is a process of thought that boggles my mind because I can’t see how anyone can have ever worked anywhere for any length of time and think that logic holds up. In general, everywhere I’ve worked where they’ve made life hell for the employees, the BEST employees leave and the only people left behind are the ones who literally cannot get jobs anywhere else.

      • It’s all mental contortions to avoid facing the reality that instruction only accounts for marginal differences between schools, and almost all the variation in academic achievement between schools can be accounted for by the socio-economic and educational attainment levels of the parents of the students. Not everyone in the “school reform” is dishonest, but those who are sincere are simply trying to feel good without admitting the best kind of “school reform” would be to do something we won’t do: dramatically reduce economic segregation in the United States.

        • Incontinentia Buttocks

          Yes…though I think the overall level of poverty is an issue, too. Though economic segregation is a huge part of the problem, I think you’d have to lower the Gini coefficient to really improve things.

          • Not either/or, it’s both.

            • Incontinentia Buttocks

              Absolutely, Dana. We’re not disagreeing about this.

        • wembley

          Sometimes you’ll see a writer or reformer pay lip service to it, but in this way: “Sure, poverty’s the problem, but we can’t fix poverty!” Since there’s always been poverty, I guess there always will be. No political will or minute sacrifice on the part of the obscenely wealthy required!

      • daveNYC

        Eh, that could, in theory work. You’d just have to pay teachers a hell of a lot more and provide them with the resources they need (materials and support staff) to be able to do the job without burning out from the workload. Never mind that reformers seem to think that just the fear of losing their jobs will cause all teachers to become super awesome or some crap.

        • herr doktor bimler

          But who wants to live in a socialist hellhole like Finland?

      • delurking

        Down deep, most Conservatives think all public school teachers are lazy and incompetent. They seriously want to destroy *all* public education. The churches should be running education, or all kids should be homeschooled. This is what they truly want.

        • Linnaeus

          Public education is a bulwark against neofeudalism.

        • JL

          I’d buy that, but there are an awful lot of liberals who support similar policies, and who don’t actually want to destroy public education, but have distorted ideas about how it works.

          If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard otherwise-liberal people make the argument “I was bored and knew more about math than my teachers in school when I was a kid, and and my friend’s cousin’s friend’s kid had a horribly incompetent teacher who couldn’t be fired because of unions and tenure, so we need to crack down on bad teachers and unions and tenure”, I could buy dinner at a nice restaurant with it.

      • JL

        Which is a process of thought that boggles my mind because I can’t see how anyone can have ever worked anywhere for any length of time and think that logic holds up. In general, everywhere I’ve worked where they’ve made life hell for the employees, the BEST employees leave and the only people left behind are the ones who literally cannot get jobs anywhere else.

        I suspect, given my anecdotes of talking to people who think this, that their logic goes “We’re not making their lives hell! They get so many more rights than I do at work! Why should they be treated so specially? We’re just giving them the same conditions of employment that other people like you and me get! Why would you have a problem with that?”

        • Joshua

          I can totally see why people who are used to getting shit on at the job will not be in favor of “someone else” getting better treatment.

          What I totally don’t get is why those people don’t ask why they are getting shit on.

          • JL

            In the case of the people I’m talking about, most of whom (like myself) are under 30 and some of whom are under 25, it’s because they accept their working conditions as normal and the way that adulthood is supposed to work. It’s not like they have work experience from the pre-Reagan-unionbusting era (or even much, if any, experience from the pre-Great-Recession era) to compare it to.

            The savvier and older ones more or less take the line of “That’s the way the world works now, there’s no going back, the rest of us have to deal with it, teachers shouldn’t be exempt.”

      • Cody

        I can’t see how anyone can have ever worked anywhere for any length of time and think that logic holds up

        … You obviously forgot who is proposing these ideas.

  • TribalistMeathead

    And I recommend you don’t think about the fact that this is what Hollywood has to offer Oscar-nominated female actors of color, because…really.

  • Anonymous

    When did Maggie G. go all wingnut? After “Secretary,” presumably?

    • spencer

      I don’t think she ever did, but according to Wikipedia, she is pretty involved in “parent trigger” advocacy. So maybe that’s why she did the movie.

      • Richard

        She was also probably offered a good amount of money (which is why most actors who aren’t in the “she can carry a movie” category accept a role)

        • sophronia

          Sadly, on paper it sounds like a great role — a woman who is the main character in a film that doesn’t concern itself exclusively with her love life, who interacts with other female characters about something other than men and dating, and who addresses an important social issue. Most actresses would love a good part like that.

          Media coverage of education has been extremely superficial even when it isn’t co-opted by the profiteers behind the privatization movement. “School choice” sounds reasonable until you research what is really being done to the schools.

    • cpinva

      “When did Maggie G. go all wingnut?”

      i wondered the same thing about holly hunter. she’s always struck me as being reasonably intelligent, so how did she get sucked into this travesty?

      • Carbon Man Bot

        As long as there’s a role for a woman with a Southern accent…….

        • ruviana

          People need to work, even actors.

          • Anonymous

            Especially female actors. Good roles are hard to come by, particularly for older actresses like Hunter, unconventional types like Gyllenhaal, and a mature black actress(well, any black actress) like Davis.

            The Newsroom has had its moments. A big improvement over Studio 60, and some good material for good actors.

    • wembley

      The charter movement isn’t seen as a right-wing position by everyday, apolitical people, though. And stuff like this movie and Waiting For Superman and such are doing their damnedest to make it seem like apolitical, centrist, Serious People stuff.

      • John

        Fucking Barack Obama and Arne Duncan are doing their damnedest to make it seem like apolitical, centrist, Serious People stuff. Education “reform” is one issue where leading Democrats really are virtually as bad as Republicans.

        • Philip

          No. Republicans found charters and support vouchers so they can avoid teaching science, and are often successful. At least the Democrat-backed ones usually make a good faith effort.

          • Richard

            I would also point out that the charter movement isn’t just this right wing scam. In certain areas, Los Angeles being one, there are left wing charter schools (like the one about a mile from where I live which teaches, English, Spanish and a Mexican Indian language to all the kids as co-equal primary languages) and I have no doubt that there are some charter schools which are significantly better than the majority of public schools. But I agree that the verdict still isn’t in on the efficacy of charter schools (they may be just the same as the public schools once you adjust for self-selection of the better students) and the idea of charter schools as a panacea to all the ills, real or imagined, of the public school system is very misguided.

            • catclub

              “But I agree that the verdict still isn’t in on the efficacy of charter schools”

              Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.
              The first result in is: “no difference.” So any new claims for dramatically better will require those extraordinary proofs.

              • Richard

                I dont think there have been enough studies over enough period of time to come to any definitive conclusions. But I agree that the evidence so far doesn’t support a claim that charter schools are capable of what they profess to accomplish

                • cpinva

                  “I dont think there have been enough studies over enough period of time to come to any definitive conclusions.”

                  the lack of any evidence so far, that charter schools produce results consistently superior to public schools, is evidence of their predicate failure. the whole basis of the charter schools advocacy, was that they would, instantly, produce results vastly superior to those attained by the public schools systems that they siphon money from. they haven’t. by their own standards, they are a failure.

                  absent instant, and consistent, superior results, charter schools have zero reason (other than siphoning taxpayer dollars into the hands of GOP cronies) for existing.

          • John

            Yeah, you’re right, Republicans are always worse.

            However, on the specific issues that are, as I understand it, addressed by this movie, a lot of elite Democrats are just as bad as Republicans.

  • Cheap Wino

    Not only does this movie have no chance of converting anyone, the ice-cream-castles-in-the-air assumptions about charter schools are so crude and unfounded that even supporters may wonder if they’re being sold a bill of goods.

    This is good news. It means the end result of the movie is that I will no longer see Maggie Gyllenhaal and think, “Jesus, she’s good looking.” and instead think, “Jesus, she was in that terrible Michelle Rhee movie.” On balance a big win for education!

  • As a movie-qua-movie, it’s pretty much what the reviews suggested: The Replacements meets Waiting for Superman, written by the person living in a torn cardboard box under the bridge’s Aaron Sorkin.

    *snort*

  • Pee Cee

    In conclusion, I’ve seen An American Carol, and I’ve seen Won’t Back Down.

    In other words, you’re a masochist.

    • Wrye

      And then you really owe it to yourself to see Secretary.

    • Bill Murray

      or he has to do something while students have sex in his office

  • TribalistMeathead

    The thing about An American Carol is, if you had to shoehorn a political message with all the subtlety of a brick to the head into Airplane!, Airplane! would’ve sucked too.

    • rea

      Oddly enough, it worked for Casablanca

    • firefall

      You missed the blatant anti-Zippism of the film then?

      • TribalistMeathead

        *offscren spit take*

    • heckblazer

      A bit of trivia: the taxi passenger in Airplane! who spends the whole movie waiting in the cab was played by Howard Jarvis.

  • Trollhattan

    …Michelle Rhee is a fraud.

    Can this be stated too often? Methinks not.

  • wengler

    If the Chicago Teachers Union strike is any indication, these movies don’t actually work to change popular opinion. The education deform movement has been wildly successful, however, in statehouses across the country.

    Here in Illinois, the Democratic majority pushed through an end to teacher tenure, and as school districts shed jobs due to less money, any teacher at the top of the pay scale is now fair game. Little by little teaching is changing from a career pursued by professionals into a temporary gig akin to babysitting.

    • There’s more to it than that in IL. HAnging over everything is the fact that for decades nobody dealt with pensions, so now they’re so massively underfunded it’s to the point where some fairly big decisions have to be made. One approach is the shitty approach of trying to deal with the demand side of the pension problem and cut down the number of people who will qualify.

  • herr doktor bimler

    I suppose there is little point in paying an education system to have an educated workforce when you no longer have an actual workforce.

  • James E. Powell

    Not only does this movie have no chance of converting anyone, the ice-cream-castles-in-the-air assumptions about charter schools are so crude and unfounded that even supporters may wonder if they’re being sold a bill of goods.

    That will never happen. The charter school movement, like conservatism, can never fail. It can only be failed.

    It’s important to consider that the vast majority of support for crushing teachers’ unions and replacing public schools with corporate schools comes from people who do not have children who attend public schools. The policy changes that they advocate do not improve education, but they don’t worry about that. They are not really interested in improving education.

    • Witt

      It’s important to consider that the vast majority of support for crushing teachers’ unions and replacing public schools with corporate schools comes from people who do not have children who attend public schools. The policy changes that they advocate do not improve education, but they don’t worry about that. They are not really interested in improving education.

      THIS.

      I keep hoping that someone will write an analysis of why “disruption” is such a seductive concept to a certain subset of young, hyper-educated technocrats.

      In my charitable moments I suspect that their reaction is born of frustration, guilt, and grief over the fact that we are failing so many people so badly, and they feel that maybe the only thing left is to take apart the whole system and start over.

      In my less-charitable moments I think they are just faddish, superficial trend-chasers who fall for glib answers and shiny promises because they honestly believe that you can nuke the world (figuratively, I feel compelled to say) and somehow wake up the next morning to a well-functioning society.

      • cpinva

        “I keep hoping that someone will write an analysis of why “disruption” is such a seductive concept to a certain subset of young, hyper-educated technocrats.”

        i can answer this for you, it’s an old business maxim: “if you can’t think of anything else to do, reorganize”

        it speaks to the shallowness of management who, lacking the capacity for any original thought, do something that appears, on the surface, to be constructive. when looked at just a bit closer, it becomes quickly apparent that it’s change, solely for the sake of change.

        • herr doktor bimler

          If it ain’t broke, then break it.

      • somethingblue

        I keep hoping that someone will write an analysis of why “disruption” is such a seductive concept to a certain subset of young, hyper-educated technocrats.

        Looking at you, Yglesias.

        In my less-charitable moments I think they are just faddish, superficial trend-chasers who fall for glib answers and shiny promises because they honestly believe that you can nuke the world (figuratively, I feel compelled to say) and somehow wake up the next morning to a well-functioning society.

        Still looking at you, Yglesias.

        • Jeffrey Beaumont

          Ha. Fucking Yglesias.

      • JL

        I keep hoping that someone will write an analysis of why “disruption” is such a seductive concept to a certain subset of young, hyper-educated technocrats.

        Well, it’s such a goddamn ubiquitous buzzword in the high-tech world. Practically every startup calls itself disruptive, brags about how disruptive it is. I know of a company that refers to its quantum computing research as “disruptive information processing”. If I never have to hear it again it will be too soon. A substantial subset of high-tech people (and marketers of high-tech products and services) have turned into caricatures of humanities grad students, wanting to turn everything into an exercise in subverting the dominant paradigm.

        I feel like somewhere there is an opportunity to turn this somewhat irritating tendency into political radicalism, that nobody has figured out (or really, attempted) yet.

        I think both your charitable and uncharitable suspicions have elements of truth.

      • Pseudonym

        Young, hyper-educated technocrats get ahead by being at the forefront of disruptive changes.

        On the other hand, same-sex marriage is arguably a disruptive change, but I doubt it will cause society to cease functioning.

    • It’s not only people looking to a corporate solutions, there are a lot of people in suburbs and rural areas who want to crush teachers unions because they want to eliminate opposition to vouchers. In other words, they want the state to pay them to stay home with their kids and teach them Noah had dinosaurs on his ark.

  • DanMulligan

    Thanks for doing this so I didn’t have to see it. I always feel guilty of dismissing a writing or movie or other bit without having read/seen it personally. But, I have to have some people I trust do it or I
    would have to read Brooks and Friedman and I just can’t take it at my age.

  • Dan Coyle

    Speaking of American Carol, David Zucker’s still around.

    “The left doesn’t have a sense of humor about themselves, and the right doesn’t go to movies.” Oh, fuck off, you sissy.

    • Dave

      Cripes, why not just call him a “girly man” and have done with? If you can’t post a 2-line comment without resorting to casual homophobia, what is the point of you?

  • This isn’t surprising. When the people at the top are so lazy they swipe the movie’s title from a song, the results will be less than satisfactory.

    Really, it is in the rule book right after the 1st law of thermodynamics.

  • Joe

    Gyllenhaal was also in that vibrator movie, which you’d hope was better than it actually was, though it sounds like it was better than this one. She plays a secret service agent in an upcoming film where Jamie Foxx plays the President. Seriously.

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