New movie 'Won't Back Down' makes the case for education reform

Published: Monday, Sept. 24 2012 2:00 p.m. MDT

“Far too many U.S. schools,” the task force concluded, “are failing to teach students the academic skills and knowledge they need to compete and succeed. … The existing systems and structures of education in the United States are laden with bureaucracy and inefficiencies. While there have been efforts to promote reform, many are too short-lived to engender widespread improvements, and successful innovations in one school too rarely spur change in other schools.”

American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten agrees that education reform is a necessity, but asserts "Won't Back Down" is not the right catalyst to spur improvements. "This fictional portrayal, which makes the unions the culprit for all of the problems facing our schools, is divisive and demoralizes millions of great teachers," Weingarten recently wrote in the Washington Post.

'The fierce urgency of now'

“Won’t Back Down” is produced by Walden Media, the publishing and production company widely known for making The Chronicles of Narnia films. The new movie isn’t Walden’s first foray into education reform. The 2010 documentary “Waiting For Superman” followed children attending dead-end elementary schools who pinned their educational hopes on winning lotteries for coveted spots at successful charter schools.

“Waiting for Superman” garnered a groundswell of praise, such as an audience award at the Sundance Film Festival and a strong 81-percent score in the Metacritic aggregation metric. The film grossed $6.4 million at the domestic box office, a nice sum for a documentary but proof that a relatively small number of people saw the movie.

Walden Media hopes that “Won’t Back Down” — a feature film headlined by Oscar nominees Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis, and Academy Award winner Holly Hunter — will have broader appeal that significantly increases public awareness of education reform and how it affects America’s families and future.

“Equal educational opportunity is the civil rights issue of our time,” said Micheal Flaherty, president of Walden Media and a member of the Deseret News Editorial Advisory Board. “If there is one thing we would love to accomplish with this film, it is to establish what Dr. (Martin Luther) King called ‘the fierce urgency of now’ when it comes to giving kids equal educational opportunities.

“There is a very short window where we can impact kids' education — you can count the number of years on one hand that will largely determine where a kid will end up.”

Opposites attract

“Won’t Back Down” may or may not succeed commercially, but it benefits from a cast that brings the story to life. Gyllenhaal is particularly strong as Jamie, an enthusiastic mom whose ebullience overshadows a knack for serially misstating aphorisms and clichés.

“I was first attracted to what the movie was saying,” Gyllenhaal told the Deseret News. “Then (in trying to understand Jamie) I started thinking: ‘Who is this person who can be this strident and this wild and able to walk into the principal’s office and talk like that? Who could do that?’

“And I thought a teenager could do that, someone who’s not a grown-up — because it’s much harder (to do that) as a grown-up. So I thought of Jamie as (emotionally) a teenager — somebody who had had her child really young, and got stuck as not exactly a grown-up when her child was born.”

Additionally, the powerful placidity of Davis —who stars as Nona Alberts, the Adams Elementary teacher who partners with the single mother Jamie — enhances Gyllenhaal’s emotional agility.

“Viola is like a force of nature,” Gyllenhaal said. “We’re so different, but I think it makes for something really interesting. … If you think of (our acting) like a tennis game, it’s like when I would hit her a tennis ball, it came back in a completely different way and place than I ever imagined.

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