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.