Daniel Barnz’s Won’t Back Down has the unique position of containing what might be the worst opening five minutes of any movie I’ve ever witnessed. The film wants to be a treatise on the problems with public schooling, so it opens with a young dyslexic girl (Emily Alyn Lind) standing in front of her class attempting to read aloud from a blackboard. In the background are rude children playing video games and poking fun at her, while the world’s most grotesquely awful teacher sits at her desk, texting and shopping for boots on the internet. All of this is shot in a dull, grainy, drained gray color palette. While the rest of the film never quite sinks this far as a means of stacking its own deck, it’s still an important sequence, because we understand the wavelength Won’t Back Down is working on. The movie has drawn a lot of criticism for going after teacher’s unions. It’s about the poverty-stricken mother (Maggie Gyllenhaal) of the aforementioned dyslexic daughter, and a good teacher (Viola Davis) at the end of her rope, who try to legally take over a failing, shoddy elementary school — but at the expense of the teacher’s union. No matter how many interviews Gyllenhaal or Davis give proclaiming that they’re not anti-labor (or remind us that they’re members of SAG), I’m not sure how else you’re supposed to read the film. This is ultimately Won’t Back Down’s tragic failing — a message picture that pretends to be forwarding a discussion, but is instead nothing more than propaganda.
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