Won’t Back Down: Maggie Gyllenhaal Burns to Be Erin Brockovich

Maggie Gyllenhaal gives an intense and over-the-top, I-want-my-Oscar performance as a fictional school reformer

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Kerry Hayes / 20th Century Fox / AP

The cheesy, wholly manipulative Won’t Back Down features the empowerment of a downtrodden school community, led by single mother Jamie Fitzpatrick (Maggie Gyllenhaal) whose eyes gleam with the zeal of reform or perhaps too much instant coffee and self-infatuation. Jamie works two jobs—selling used cars and bartending—and has a learning disabled third-grader who is being woefully neglected in the Pittsburgh public school system. Like Erin Brockovich before her, Jamie sets out to rally the community through any means possible, including push-up bras, sweet talking the people at front desks and enlisting the help of a demoralized but talented professional in the relevant field in order to beat a corrupt and negligent system.

Jamie’s goal is to improve her daughter Malia’s (Emily Alyn Lind) lousy school under what the movie calls the fail-safe law but which in real life is known as the parent-trigger law. A concept that started in California, parent-trigger laws allow parents to intervene by various means when schools are failing, which could including closing the school outright, firing the principal or staff or turning it into a charter. (Six other states have versions of parent-trigger in place, and 12 more states are slated to consider the legislation in the coming months.) Jamie needs to get 50 percent of the parents at Adams Elementary on her side.

(READ: How Won’t Back Down relates to real life in the Chicago teacher’s strike)

I am not sure why director and co-writer Daniel Barnz decided to use the phrase fail-safe rather than parent-trigger, unless it is because he wanted the narrative wiggle room. Under fail-safe Jamie must also get a certain number of the school’s teachers on her side (not the case with parent-trigger laws), a plotting decision that allows for the feel-good aspect of teamwork as Jamie partners with her version of Brockovich’s Albert Finney, teacher Nona Alberts (Viola Davis). The movie is blatantly political and intended as much more than pure entertainment—why else would it have been shown at both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions?—but there is an intermittent coyness about the terminology involved. This is a hot issue, and the filmmakers want the protective cover of fiction. For instance, the word “charter,” rapidly acquiring its own baggage as corporate interests in school privatization come to light, doesn’t get much play even though a charter school is clearly the direction Jamie and Nona hope to take the miserable Adams Elementary. Jamie instead speaks passionately of a “new school.” It might be, she suggests to Nona, a place where children could use the methods of the self-help book The Secret, picturing themselves in college so that they’ll eventually get there.

(READ: Joel Stein’s profile of Viola Davis)

Oh dear. Nona seems like a very sensible, though depressed woman (a Davis specialty), so you might think she’d show Jamie to the door at that point, but instead they soldier on. Their opponents include Malia’s wretched teacher, Deborah (Nancy Bach), a tenured cow who browses Zappos.com in between texting and telling Malia not to be such a “drama queen,” as well as the unprincipled principal, but mostly, the devils are associated with the local teacher’s union. If you made Bach, Holly Hunter and Ned Eisenberg, who play lying, cheating, greedy union jerks one and two, stand in the lobby of a movie theater just as a screening of Won’t Back Down was getting out, angry patrons would probably tar and feather them. Teachers unions are by no means perfect, but Won’t Back Down turns them into public school enemy number one.

In this sense, and just about every other, Won’t Back Down feels like the dramatization of Waiting for Superman, the provocative 2010 documentary about America’s declining public school system; some scenes, like one involving a lottery for spots in good schools, feel lifted right from that film, but with prettier people. (Lind, the talented little actress who plays Malia, is a miniature version of Elle Fanning, who starred in Barnz’s 2008 film, Phoebe in Wonderland. Like so many movie kids, she’s blonde and angelic.) Both movies were produced in part by Walden Media, Philip Anschutz’s company. But if Waiting for Superman was intended to make audiences think, Won’t Back Down is supposed to make them feel.

It made me feel more annoyed than outraged. The characterizations of the union bosses are absurd. Who outside of Aaron Sorkin’s world stops in the middle of their office full of people who work for a union to speechify about the importance of unions? “Are you not aware of what’s going on in this country?” Eisenberg’s union president bellows at Hunter’s character. “We’re under attack.” Um, she’s pretty clued in. Malia’s teacher is so broadly sketched I half expected Barnz to cut to her pulling out a vibrator, just to bring it to full parody, Bad Teacher style.

(READ: What TIME’s Richard Corliss thought of Erin Brockovich)

But the movie rises and falls on the shoulders of its leading ladies. Davis is as always, a rock solid actress, and through her quiet forcefulness, almost sells a last-minute dramatic revelation about Nona’s dark secret involving her own learning-challenged son. Gyllenhaal gives a very strange, poorly directed performance. Jamie uses the word trepidacious repeatedly—I counted at least three uses of it—and every time I heard it, I thought our hearts are supposed to go out to this secretly vulnerable, blue collar young woman who arms herself with words that sound big and important and yet are painfully inappropriate. As a striver like feisty Erin Brockovich, she is guaranteed to win the audience over, right?

But if that’s what Barnz and Gyllenhaal are aiming for, it’s undercut by how smug Jamie is the rest of the time. She’s Grizzly Bear mama who boasts that she could lift a one-ton truck off her daughter and then some if need be. She’s also over-sexualized in a way that’s extraordinarily insulting. You get the sense that if Jamie has to, she’ll seduce everyone in town to make the charter happen. “You’re going to be so good at this,” she purrs to Nona. As they take stock of the other parents, Jamie tells Nona, “See how bad they want it?” It’s not all-faux sexuality either: “I saw you teach,” she tells the cute teacher everyone calls Sexy Texy (Oscar Isaacs). “You’re really good at it.” Then she tells him he’s got a cute butt. Soon Sexy Texy is sleeping with the slinky single mom, babysitting Malia while Nona and Jamie campaign and re-examining his blind faith in unions.

In all likelihood, Barnz and his co-writer Brin Hill sexed up Jamie Fitzpatrick in an effort to remind us as much as possible of Erin Brockovich, who was in noble pursuit of legal justice for the downtrodden. There’s a big difference though. The Brockovich played by Julia Roberts turned the sexual energy and charm off and on as it suited her; she was in charge. But Jamie’s eyes shine with the fevered energy of one for whom charisma is a goal, not a innate gift, and sex gets you there. This lady inspires mostly trepidation.

8 comments
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Lesser Okay
Lesser Okay

The free market has spoken!

"In eighth place, Won't Back Down

debuted to an atrocious $921,000 from 2,515 locations. It will earn

around $3 million this weekend, which will be one of the worst debuts

ever for a movie in 2,500 or more theaters." - BoxOfficeMojo.com

9/29/12.

Ouch!

Ricky Rogers
Ricky Rogers

Charter schools tend to reject children with learning disabilities as it lowers their test scores. So the school she starts, will in the end dump her kid.  This movie is a propaganda job by anti-union forces. Shame on Maggie for appearing in this misleading film. Some people will do anything for money, just ask Mitt.

tma_sierrahills
tma_sierrahills

Glad the empathetic best friend and soulmate character is played by a black person, which is pretty much required now under the Hollywood Constitution. In any case, I once heard Erin Brockovich remark that ever since that movie came out, she can never object to the least little thing, an under-cooked steak, whatever,  without everyone rolling their eyes and saying, "There she goes, doing her Erin Brockovich again!" Which I thought was pretty amusing.  

Carlos6970
Carlos6970

You're right. Not only in movies, you also see it in every single comercial, and every single TV show. Black people make about 10 to 12% of the population, so it would be mathematically impossible to see a black person in every aspect of the movies/commercials/news-casts.  I could see it if they were about 50% of the population, but not given the demographics. The HBO show "Girls" was FORCED to ad a black characted (among the main characters) for next season because the core group of girls (a show about 4 Jewish girls in NY) did not have a black person as one of the "best friends".  As if it's impossible to have a group of best friends from only one ethnic group.  Blacks do it, Asians do it, Arabs do it, Latinos do it. etc etc. Pure BS. I really don't get Hollywood, they want TV that's more realistic, except that the reality they want is not REAL. How many Asian friends do you think Al Sharpton has? crazy stuff.

tma_sierrahills
tma_sierrahills

Well said, Carlos. I imagine the loving Tolerance Police are probably thinking about my post, "Here's a guy who just can't stand to see blacks on the screen!" But the problem is that these things are required, are pervasive and do not reflect reality. And, ironically, such heroic black characters in otherwise white films or TV series don't draw in black audiences anyway. 

On Netflix I was watching the first episode of something called 'The Walking Dead,' about some sheriff's deputy who had been in a coma when the zombies took over. Plot. First he is saved and nursed back to health by a black guy: Check. Then when he reaches a large city and finds about a half-dozen actual non-zombie people, who are sort of shell-shocked and  fighting for survival, one of them turns out to be, of course, an unhinged white supremacist: Check. 

So you can never get away from this endless drumbeat in the media, even when you try to escape into some wacky guilty pleasure like the first episode of a cable series about rampaging zombies. Obviously the eerie Orwellian pervasiveness of all this false-reality propaganda is absolutely no accident. 

tma_sierrahills
tma_sierrahills

Dear "rahonavis":

Thank you for your comments. No doubt another loving member of the Tolerance Police. Love comics, but if you were more familiar with them, you would know that the Left has been deeply involved, dominating comics and graphic novels since their inception. As with the larger media today, their creators were quite often Jewish, who took it as their mission to destabilize the so-called WASP power structure, the theory being to create a multicultural multiracial nation where they would be safer from evil white anti-antisemitism. But the end of the West will not be safer for anyone. Best to read 'The Culture of Critique,' by Kevin MacDonald.

rahonavis
rahonavis

If you read the comics on which it is loosely based,  you would know that the first family that Rick meets is a black father and son. So the TV series decided in its early episodes to stick closer to the comic roots than it has subsequently done.  Given that this graphic novel was published years before the series was conceived (it started in 2003), this was not a "made for tv" choice. The comics are also published by an independent and creator owed publisher, so its not some order down from on high. There are also many women, an Asian  and latter more black people in the cast of both the comic and the TV series, I guess this must also shock you because obviously if a scenario like that happened (which it never will but besides that) only white males will make it huh.   But instead of even say googling to see why they choose the black characters for those scenes you choose to try and say its "the media" and look like a fool becasue you have no idea what you are talking about other than your need to object to any black character on screen (which are mostly in supporting roles becasue most of the lead actors in hollywood, even more than the population percentages, are white).

Have a nice day. 

Karl Class
Karl Class

First, I am a proud parent of three wonderful daughters who have been attending public schools with phenomenal teachers who care and support them and all their classmates, even if many of them struggle through school and life.  Further, I am a siblings of a public school teacher in Los Angeles who is dedicated to enriching his students, not only with the academics that he teaches, but how to tackle the real world...at an underperforming school.  He tells me about the priorities of his students', some having to work, others having to provide child care by supervising their siblings as the parents are working at night, their concern to safely get home, others who are hungry, and another who would have forgone a special leadership program at the University of Southern California that she initially declined until my brother rallied his colleagues to raise the money to pay for the fees so she could attend.  Won't Back Down is a skewed fictional portrayal of a Pittsburgh School to advocate for a specific agenda that misses so much about the overall needs to educate students and truly put children first.  Demonizing teachers will not help improve our public education system.  Like any other worker (athlete - person), teachers need to be given support and encouragement, particularly by involving them, with the parents, PTA, the community, school boards, students, and funders (whether it be local or state) to work together to improve the school and/or system...not to marginalize them, just because they have students who have so many other challenges that school is not their top priority.