The far gentler "Won't Back Down," seems to be an upbeat story about a single mom and a dedicated teacher who band together to reform a failing school. "It's about making people aware of the problems with our education system and trying to inspire people to get active," says star Maggie Gyllenhaal. "I mean, whatever your politics are, how can you not support that?"
Except that the film's also a carefully contrived critique of teachers' unions. Backed by billionaire Philip Anschutz, it's designed not just to sell tickets, but to present a point of view.
His production company, Walden Media, had previously produced the pro-charter advocacy film "Waiting for Superman," too, but was disappointed when the movie failed to draw large audiences.
We "realized the inherent limitations of the documentary format," Walden CEO Michael Bostick told the New York Times.Far less honest, though, is the fictional "Won't Back Down," which while purportedly "inspired by a true story" is actually inspired by something its backers would like to see come true, the national adoption of "trigger" laws that allow parents to take over failing schools and institute wide-ranging changes. It's already drawn fire, particularly, predictably from teachers' unions. And so this time they decided to use fiction — a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down.
"I think a lot of the criticism is coming from people who haven't seen the film yet," insists Gyllenhaal (who has a child in private school). "When they do, I think they'll embrace it, and teachers will ultimately get behind it. It's about making people aware of the problems with our education system and trying to inspire them to get active. ... The film really has such good intentions."
But what really are its intentions?
Anschutz, its prime backer and a reclusive oilman, has not only donated money to support the charter movement, but also to oppose gay marriage, collective-bargaining rights and environmental initiatives. The media holdings he's added to his portfolio, including the Weekly Standard, are one way to get those conservative messages out.
Get them out and keep them in theaters, too. Although "Won't Back Down" flopped in its opening weekend, it's still running full-page ads in papers, and appearing on a number of screens — although all of the New York and New Jersey theaters advertising shows are part of the Regal chain, another Anschutz holding.
Until recently, though, Anschutz's movie company was content to turn out apolitical — and quite well-made — family films, with uplifting stories and strong characters. Even when there was the chance to proselytize — as in its excellent productions of the "Narnia" films -- Walden Media generally preferred letting the allegory speak for itself. With "Won't Back Down," though, all subtlety has been abandoned. Some facts are invented; some are ignored. Anything that might suggest there are any other causes for failing schools besides unions (or any other solution beyond busting them) isn't brought up. The film doesn't want to begin a debate on public education, but conclude one.
And that's what the producers of films like "Won't Back Down" count on — that in between the smiles or tears, they can sneak in a sectarian message or a political attack. That we won't notice, that we can't tell the difference between art and propaganda.Unlike the original Won't Back Down, my sequel has all of its facts cited. Phil, baby, call my agent, and we'll do lunch.