Scene: Dim classroom. Tattered walls are backed by rusted lockers. Color is dim and grain is heavy.
A child struggles to read a sentence on a chalkboard. Other children tease. A distracted, pouty-face teacher gleefully plays with her cell phone until the reading disruption, forcing her into a huff. She is also missing out on great clothing sales on her computer because this kid can’t read.
That’s public schooling to Won’t Back Down. In other words, watch Waiting for Superman.
This is not a film made to honor the women who stood up to the system, fought back, and “did not back down.” Instead, this is a platform for hideously malformed political agenda, released the same year teachers stormed political buildings for their cause. All of the power is lost to the frailty of the anti-union stance, one so hilariously dreary and one-sided, it becomes laughable.
Won’t Back Down’s single mother Jamie Fitzpatrick (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is fighting for her daughter’s education, unable to afford private schools and missing out on a lottery for charter school entry. Adams’ Elementary is not suited to her daughter’s learning disability, the system failing and bureaucracy impossible to pierce.
Fitzpatrick does something. She joins an Adams’ teacher who demands a change, another mother struggling with her child’s disability. Nona Alberts (Viola Davis) fights a war of paperwork that begins centering on her. Alberts’ co-workers resist and reject, parents are manipulated, while higher-ups are paid off. Anyone not with them is manipulative, slimy, and arrogant.
This is an angry movie, although for all the wrong reasons. American education is a disaster. Solutions are needed, and change is necessary. Won’t Back Down’s appeal is so vehemently addressed to one establishment as to be comedic. Union offices are pale blues and stale whites. Employees are frantic, egotistical, ill-mannered archetypes. This is not a film of discussion so much as it is a calculated attack dressed as entertainment.
Embellishments are one thing. “Based” on a true story can only impact narrative so much, thus characters expand or need to be enlarged as to reveal their texture. The union representative played by Ned Eisenberg is comedically akin to Dean Wormer in Animal House. That 1978 comedy classic was trying to funny with a dressed up, steely-eyed villain. Won’t Back Down is not.
Don’t take that the wrong way. Unions need change. So do parents. So does the system. So do the politics in play. Even our society needs to drop an indifferent attitude. We all needs adjusting for the better of our kids. Some films bring out the best in people. Freedom Writers may pour on the school-based schmaltz, but it leads without placing direct blame on the failure of modern education. Won’t Back Down pleads and cries about our children, but has a central villain played to stock.
Kudos to those who stand up, and for those who succeed, hopefully your story is not treated as such an appalling entertainment commodity… ironically made by union workers.
Won’t Back Down grows visually. It opens on a gray classroom, chilly by timing standards. Slowly, as the women fight back against a resistant system, elements come into the frame. Flesh tones are restored. Grain is lessened. Saturation of primaries is boosted. By the end, which of course is a courtroom-esque sequence, blazing green and red t-shirts fill an entire room. It is a shock to the system.
Fox’s AVC encode is a good one, handling a grain structure that sits somewhere between 16 and 35mm. While it is relived near the end, most of the running time it is an active element of the imagery, adding texture without artifacts. No instances of banding are present, and the mild aliasing on a refrigerator decoration is a petty complaint.
Behind the film stock is a sharp image, if one lacking in the finest of details. There are a handful of moments where smoothing is evident, although uncommon. Facial definition will creep in and out on various occasions, rarely consistent, if never so flat as to be unimpressive. Other elements, from city streets to home exteriors, have more energy and zip to take notice of.
The genuine issue here is black crush. Shadow detail disappears into the void with alarming regularity. Black levels do stay steady, even in the darkest moments but also take too much with them. Gyllenhaal’s hair is a black splotch on top of her head, and dark clothing is typically blob like. There is being edgy or dreary and there is being detrimental. This one is the latter, a visual pleaser but just off the mark.
Headline: Dialogue driven drama does not have much sound design. That is as boring a headline as this is an audio mix.
Like most of these dramatic fare efforts, Won’t Back Down is not doing anything wrong. The issue at hand is that the sense of place often wanes. While an opening on crowded school hallways will litter the surrounds with echoes and kids yelling, other times the rears are dead. The hallways and classrooms might as well be unoccupied.
Dialogue sticks front and center without any traveling despite opportunities to do so. Scoring is light on filling the rear speakers, sticking to the fronts to play it safe. There is little energy at work.
Director Daniel Barnz is active two places on this disc: He carries a solo commentary and then runs down six deleted scenes if you so choose. A Tribute to Teachers has cast and crew chatting about influential educators in their lives, and Importance of Education is a short blurb on what this country needs to keep itself going via schools. Fox issues a couple of trailers and closes the book on this one.
Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review. This has not affected the editorial process. For more information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.