My Review of ‘Won’t Back Down’ (spoiler alert)

As the lights dimmed and the opening credits rolled during my preview of ‘Won’t Back Down,’ I got a little nervous.  Based on some of the commercials I had seen, I thought there was a chance that it was going to be a good ‘film.’  I do think that a good film could be made about any subject, even one I might not agree with its underlying premise.

I loved, for example, ‘Seabiscut,’ even though I think that horse racing is barbaric and the gambling that goes along with it can destroy the lives of many poor people.  But the movie was great.  It had a great script, high drama, suspense, and an inspirational message.  I also loved ‘Shine’ despite my piano teacher telling me that the ‘Rach 3’ is not the hardest piano piece ever written and that the actual man the movie was based on is actually a very mediocre musician.  A great movie is a great movie, even when ‘dramatic license’ is taken.

I am also a big fan of movies about teaching.  Some are a bit cheesy, for sure, but I usually find them entertaining, regardless.  I think the best one is probably ‘Stand And Deliver,’ even though much of what happened in that one was quite inaccurate.

I had read some things about ‘Won’t Back Down,’ going into it, and I knew about some of the flaws, but I had not seen a critique of the quality of it as a ‘film,’ separate from the message.  In a few weeks when the movie is officially released, the newspapers are not going to be fact-checking whether or not the movie is based on truth, but how it holds up as a movie.

I’m a huge movie buff and just as I have strong opinions about the ed reform movement, I’ve always been a demanding movie goer.  With this context, I was relieved that this movie was poorly done.  Some of the acting was pretty good, but they could not overcome the illogical and amateurish script.

The movie is about a mother, Jamie Fitzpatrick, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal.  Her child, who has Dyslexia, is a new second grader at Adams Elementary School in Pittsburgh.  Jamie is a single mother who works at a car dealership and a bartender.  We learn, right away, that her child has a bad teacher.  As she struggles to read the word ‘story,’ the teacher has her cell phone out and is constantly texting on it.  In a room down the hall, another teacher Nona Alberts, played by Viola Davis, has lost her enthusiasm for teaching, though her class is certainly better than the other teacher.  Nona’s son is also a student at Adams Elementary.  Adams seems to be about 70% White, and the parents, in general, seem to be middle class to lower middle class.  The school, evidently, doesn’t have special services for students with Dyslexia.  Adams Elementary, they say, has gotten an ‘F’ for nineteen years in a row, even though schools have only been getting these kind of letter ratings for the past couple of years.  7 out of 10 students will leave Adams not knowing how to read.  Only 2% of the students from Adams will graduate college.

When Jamie tells her daughter that she needs to hurry so they are not late for school, the daughter says “This school doesn’t care.”  Then Jamie asks the teacher if she would be willing to stay after school to work with the daughter and the teacher says that school ends at 3:00.  Nona’s son is also struggling at the school, despite Nona’s efforts to tutor her son at home.

Jamie attends a lottery for the Rosa Parks Charter school and is surprised to see Nona there trying to get her son in.  The charter lottery is unrealistic as 80% of the families are white and middle class.

In the teacher’s lounge back at Adams we learn that Nona has been, at the request of the principal, falsifying the attendance records.  Since they can’t pass the kids on if they don’t attend class, she erases the absences for the principal and all the teachers are aware of this.  Why Nona agrees to do this instead of simply reporting the principal, which would certainly get him fired, they never answer.

Jamie goes to speak to the superintendent, but isn’t allowed to.  Instead she chats with one of the secretaries there and learns about the ‘fair choice’ law — a dramatized version of the ‘parent trigger’ — which has one incredible difference.  Half the 800 parents AND half the 36 teachers have to sign the petition to ‘turn around’ the school.  The ‘turnaround’ will be based on the charter that they create, so it is not, as I had thought before seeing the movie, that they would be turned over to a charter network.

Jamie goes to the school the next day to ask Nona if she will lead the effort to get the signatures of the staff. There is a meeting the next morning and Jamies asks “can’t you take a sick day” to come to the meeting.  Nona does (something that would have gotten her fired in reality) and they decide to give it a shot.  It is rough going at first.  Jamie visits a handsome young Teach For America teacher who we learn is great because his classes are often line dancing while he sings songs about going to college.  He is reluctant to sign on because he ‘just wants to teach’ and supports the union.  We learn that his favorite teacher when he was a student was nearly fired for showing his class the movie ‘Hair’ and the union protected the teacher from being fired unfairly.  That was why he became a teacher, he said, which makes it puzzling why he did TFA rather than a degree in education.

As they start to get more support from parents and then the teachers, the major logical flaw in the movie surfaces.  All we ever see is the one ‘bad’ teacher in the school.  When they finally get past the 18 teachers needed to sign the petition, I realized that the movie was not a movie about bad teachers.  A movie about a school overrun by bad teachers and a corrupt administration could actually make a good movie, I think.  But the crazy thing about this movie was that the teachers, except for that one, were all good teachers who desperately wanted to do a better job.  And the only way they could do a better job would be if they got this charter approved because (you’re not going to believe this) THE UNION CONTRACT FORBIDS THESE TEACHERS FROM STAYING AFTER SCHOOL TO WORK WITH THEIR STUDENTS.  I am not kidding.  Throughout the movie they remind us of this.  I kept thinking that if these teachers are so frustrated that they aren’t teaching as well as they can, why don’t they just do a better job planning?  Does this union contract, which they tell us is 600 pages long, also forbid these teachers from planning at home at night?  Also, in contrast to the ‘bad’ teachers cliche, this school has at least half of the teachers being highly motivated.  So, again, the conflict in this movie is that all these great teachers do not have the freedom to stay after school if they want to, which is why the school is failing.  There is never any other mention of something else in the union contract that prevents them from doing their best job teaching.  And their charter plan has things in it that nothing was preventing them from doing already, like having 5th graders read Shakespeare.  The new school can’t be union “because our contract has too many restrictions.”

As they gain momentum, and it seems that they might get the signatures they need, the union starts to fight back.  The second in charge at the union, played by Holly Hunter, tells Jamie that if she gives up the fight, she will help her daughter get a scholarship to an expensive private school.  Jamie refuses.

Meanwhile, the principal calls Nona to her office and asks if she has altered the attendance records for him.  When she says yes, he informs her that this is illegal and fires her.  At this point of the movie I almost screamed out “Good thing she’s in the union,” but I didn’t.  If this really happened, the teacher and the principal would both be, justifiably, fired.

The hearing with the board finally comes.  It is known that the board is very union-friendly, which is in stark contrast to the hand-picked boards in cities like New York that have mayoral control.  The charter is initially denied, but when one of the board members explains that he voted ‘no’ because one of the line items said something would cost $413,000 instead of $134,000, he could not trust them to run a school.  Jamie announces that this is because she has Dyslexia and then they have a new vote and the charter passes.  Then, in an over-directed moment, Jamie looks right into the camera and reminds us not to forget that this is “for the kids.”  Fast forward one year and the school is a completely different place with all the same teachers, it seemed, except that one, now that they have the freedom to stay after school if they want to.

This movie failed on so many levels.  Many posts have already been written about the inaccuracy and how it is disingenuous to flash the words “inspired by true events” near the beginning of the movie.  But movie viewers and critics don’t really care about that.  So I was actually pleased with how bad of a movie it was from a strictly movie-critic angle.

One and a half stars.

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47 Responses to My Review of ‘Won’t Back Down’ (spoiler alert)

  1. L says:

    “In the teacher’s lounge back at Adams we learn that Nona has been, at the request of the principal, falsifying the attendance records. Since they can’t pass the kids on if they don’t attend class, she erases the absences for the principal and all the teachers are aware of this. Why Nona agrees to do this instead of simply reporting the principal, which would certainly get him fired, they never answer.”

    The attendance coach at the school I used to teach at falsified attendance records regularly for students whose # of absences made them ineligible to take remedial summer school classes or take a “makeup” senior exam. Yes, this was known by pretty much all the teachers. Did I or anyone else report it? No. Why? I was being beaten down left and right trying to stand my ground with the failing grades “I gave” my students. (Did I report that? No.) Some things just were the norm, and we fought our smaller battles in house.

  2. meghank says:

    That’s a relief!

  3. JDM says:

    Is there a review around that deals with the reality of what actually happened in the “Stand And Deliver” situation? Geez, this “Won’t Back Down” movie sounds ghastly. With “Waiting For Superman,” it seems like the beginning of “Reefer Madness” for ed reformers.

    • reino says:

      Jay Mathews wrote a book that deals with the Escalante issue somewhat. Basically, it took several years for Escalante to get his classes in good enough shape where large numbers of students were ready to take the AP Test. Also, the evidence of cheating was very strong. People who don’t pay attention tend to think that either the students knew calculus or they cheated. The truth is that the students were well taught, but some of them cheated on some questions. The students did not cheat on the retest and did about equally as well.

  4. skepticnotcynic says:

    Hollywood has been duped by the democratic elite. So many contradictions. When will we see the light at the end of the tunnel?

    • Kate Sannicks-Lerner says:

      What? What ARE you talking about, skeptic? What has this to do with the democratic elite? To what contradictions are you referring?

    • james f mothersbaugh, jr says:

      The light at the end of the tunnel is happening right now in Chicago!

      • CitizensArrest says:

        True, but we are still in the tunnel. The fuel we need to make it the rest of the way out is for Chicago to have an ELECTED SCHOOL BOARD that actually listens to parents. We don’t have that now, not at all.

  5. I saw Stand and Deliver and also read the book by Jay Mathews on the famous AP Calculus class that was accused of cheating; these Hispanic LA kids almost all took the chance to take the test again and passed. As an inner-city math teacher for over 20 years at that point, I was utterly dumfounded. How on earth did Escalante do that? Looking at the Annenberg-CPB series, I was even more confused. How on earth do you get a kid who, in the fall, can’t use fractions, to the point where in the spring he’s acing the A-B or B-C Calculus exam? WTF? What sort of magic juju does that teacher have that I never saw anywhere, any time, in any subject, not when I was in school, not when I was student teaching, and not when I was a teacher?

    Smarter people than I have pointed out that in reality, it took about a decade or so of really hard work until Escalante and his recruiting network of other teachers and classes built up a critical mass of student and teacher experience and skill and understanding, and reached out to a lot of parents as well. Evening and weekend classes and summer and vacation classes were organized, money scrounged up, and, don’t forget, all the other math teachers passed on their very best students so Escalante and a couple of others could work with them.

    What he accomplished was remarkable, but it was a group effort and took a long time. When Escalante eventually had a falling-out with the admin at his school, he was unable to replicate the tremendous success at other schools. Yes, a great teacher, worked hard, inspired a lot of folks, but there is a lot of hard work by a group that never makes it to the movie screen…

    • Kate Sannicks-Lerner says:

      Thank you, Guy! I know that I’m almost always find movies about teachers and teaching ridiculously unrealistic. I realize, though, that truth is stranger than fiction, but never more entertaining, it seems!

  6. Terry says:

    Wasn’t there only two “good” teachers in the movie…And the one who was working so hard, didn’t they say he was TFA? White, union teachers = BAD. Young TFA or African
    American = Good. It even starts with: based on true events which is a lie. Oprah is promoting this? In Florida, they were busing in parents of brown Hispanics, no whites, no Asians, just African Americans. One woman thought she was seeing a movie about breast cancer. They don’t even know why they are there. Yup…civil rights movement of our time as we exploit parents of color. Use them, abuse them, toss them aside once you take over their school. Pull the trigger once and your school is gone for good…parent grenade not trigger. The eduvultures will not stop until they have destroyed the unions and taken away all the students they deem to be worthy of their indoctrination.

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      If by ‘good’ you mean really doing a great job, then there was just one good teacher at the beginning, the TFA guy. And if by ‘bad’ you mean completely negligent, there was the one teacher of the daughter. The other 34 teachers, it seems, were not doing a great job, but just because they were burned out, frustrated, and defeated. This is how the Viola Davis character is in the beginning but then thinking about the prospect of taking over the school, she gets motivated again and gets her mojo back, even without the takeover. The other teachers want to do a better job, but it seems they feel that the union contract doesn’t allow them to do so. I see that as one bad and the rest are ‘good,’ but facing what they think is an insurmountable obstacle (the 600 page union contract). But if the Davis character could get motivated and do a good job, even before the takeover, why couldn’t the other ones just do that too?

      • Kate Sannicks-Lerner says:

        What, Gary? I hope your question, “why couldn’t the other ones just do that too” is a facetious one. You DO realize the movie is pure fiction, don’t you? Pure, LUDICROUS fiction… (Please tell me that you know that!)

      • Gary Rubinstein says:

        Oh, all I meant by that is that the movie made no sense. If teachers want to work harder, there is nothing, certainly not the union contract, preventing them from doing so. It is one thing if the teachers thought the problem was corrupt administration and they rallied to get new leadership since the old were stifling them, but what I meant was that if Viola Davis could make the decision to try harder, why did the other teachers feel that until they were freed from the union contract, they could not.

      • Kate Sannicks-Lerner says:

        LOL… oh… okay… I’m all better now! (Plus, I’ve had a glass of wine… ::sigh::)

  7. Pingback: Not Another Bad Teacher Movie | EduShyster

  8. Harold says:

    I had not planned on seeing this movie after I caught a few of the ridiculous previews, but your review leads me to believe we’ve got a “so bad it’s good” flick on our hands. I find that difficult to resist.

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      Yes, it could, as edshyster wrote about (see his comment), be like a Rocky Horror where you can bring props and laugh along with what’s going on and maybe compile a list of well timed things to scream out so it can spread — or to laugh at places that weren’t supposed to be funny like when they say “change the school, change the neighborhood.”

  9. E. Rat says:

    I find it interesting that teachers are bad not merely because they text, but also for declining to put in extra unpaid hours tutoring students. Teachers are so widely expected to put their own money and time into their classrooms that any refusal to do so is “bad teaching”.

    The anti-union bent of this film sounds appalling. And that contract provision is pretty fantastic. A few years back, my union went “work to rule” during contract negotiations. Union representatives specifically outlined how staff could show work to rule solidarity (keeping classroom lights low before school and then perhaps meeting up in front of the school and walking back in at contract time) while continuing to work well beyond the rule. I suspect my actual experience is far more common than the movie version.

    • Kathleen says:

      I was told that if we ‘work to rule’ or even appear to do so we can be fined. (NYS)

      • teacher in kc says:

        That doesn’t make any sense. Work to rule means you follow the rules and don’t do any additional work that is not required. How can you be fined for following the rules??

      • Kathleen says:

        I don’t know. I guess, if you had been doing something voluntarily after school, and decided to stop, you couldn’t. At least that’s what our union president said. Crazy, ain’t it?

      • Kathleen says:

        Found a link. It says: (From One part of the Taylor Law, Civil Service Law section 210, prohibits public employees and public employee organizations from engaging in a strike and from causing, instigating, encouraging, or condoning a strike. In addition, the law forbids persons who supervise or direct public employees authorizing, approving, condoning, or consenting to a strike. The law defines a strike as ‘any strike or other concerted stoppage of work or slowdown by public employees.’ The Board has found sick-outs, slowdowns, a refusal to work regularly-scheduled overtime, concerted high absenteeism, work-to-rule tactics, and teachers’ refusals to participate in field trips, faculty meetings, and parent-teacher conferences, all were unlawful strikes in the particular circumstances presented in each case.

  10. KatieO says:

    I wish someone would make a movie about whats happening now in Chicago. The Chicago Teachers Union, in partnership with dozens of community and parents groups, is fighting an epic battle for the soul of public education. Will education be handed over to our 1% mayor and his wealthy business buddies to be sold off and privatized or will public schools get the resources they need to create a quality neighborhood school for every child? Now THAT’s based on “true events” and boy am I inspired!

  11. Rita S says:

    I’m not so sure the general public will give this movie such a low rating after it is hyped ad nauseam on Oprah, Ellen, The View, morning talk shows, evening talk shows, etc. Sometimes movies become ‘hits’ to the general population who are not necessarily movie buffs.

    Gary, I have a question. I attended a screening on Aug 18th, In that screening the name of the law was most definitely the ‘fail safe’ law. I’m curious to see, if, as the publicist said, that after screenings and dialogue w/screening audiences that they changed the name of the law to “Fair Choice?” I’ve also been told of another possible change in the beginning of the movie,

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      Oh, I think I just wrote it wrong. ‘Fail safe’ sounds right.

    • Terry says:

      They didn’t want to use parent trigger because it has a bad name and a new name..parent tricker and they never mention the word charter either. They want to use and manipulate the uneducated, disenfranchized brown parent whose children they care so much about…..since they have now figured out how to make money feigning concern for their education, even if it is and it will be, just test prep and test taking.

    • CitizensArrest says:

      Few though we are, I think the best course is to reach out in a thoughtful, reasoned way to people like Ellen D. and Bill Cosby, recently acquired by StudentsLast. I’m sure they have not heard anything of our voices but the misrepresentations of what we say by those who see America’s children as dollar signs.

  12. Rita S says:

    On another note at the Washington DC screening I attended in mid Aug, I asked 7 attendees at different places on ny way out of the movie the same question: “Was that movie based on a real story, you know, the truth?” Without exception, all 7 told me — some emphatically — “oh yes, that was a true story.”

    Whether or not movie critics or moviegoers don’t care about that, as you mentioned, I don’t know. But I found it disturbing that all seven were led to believe by the cleverly worded “Inspired by True Events” to mean that this was a true story.

    Those of us knee deep in education reform look for things in the movie to refute and reveal as fictitious or even fantasy. Those who are uninvolved but who are about to be aren’t that savvy yet. That’s the audience that concerns me.

  13. teacher in kc says:

    I saw the trailer and there’s a scene where Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character finds her daughter locked in a closet at school. I was so outraged by that scene alone – as if this happens? That’s so insulting to all of us hard working teachers.

    I’m also dumbfounded by the supposed contract in this movie that forbids the teachers from working after school. Oh really? When has a union contract ever directed what we do outside of our work day? Is there another clause telling these teachers when they should do laundry or what nights they can go out to dinner with their families? How stupid.

    Thanks for the review.

    • Kate Sannicks-Lerner says:

      You know, teacher in kc, locking a student in a closet, maybe not, but taping students’ mouths shut? That happened… just ask MICHELLE RHEE! You know, little Miss School-Reform-Rhee? Yeah… that’s why I find this movie so ludicrous! Michelle Rhee, premier union-busting proponent, was the one who taped kids mouths, BY HER OWN ADMISSION! We should let the general viewing public know this!

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      In the context of the movie, it wasn’t that the teacher locked the student in the closet. What had happened was that the teacher did not let the girl go to the bathroom (out of revenge for her mother’s takeover attempt, it is implied) and the girl had an accident. Then the daughter voluntarily ran to the closet. Still bad, but maybe less bad than the commercial makes it seem.

      • Kate Sannicks-Lerner says:

        Ah… I was reading another review of the movie that claims the girl was locked in the closet…

        Still, I would wager that many folks watching the movie don’t know about Ms. Rhee’s self-admitted tape incident!

  14. Rosalind says:

    As a committed union member, I along with many union members and a great deal of documentation following the Teachers’s Handbook fought for the worst principal that I had come in contact with for my 30 years plus some teachers were pinked slipped merely for their attitudes according to this principal. Today this person is still a principal though she has been moved to another school. The district careless about truth to them it is just teachers making noise about nothing. Thank God I am retired I feel for the students and teachers but I see no change coming

  15. Rachel says:

    A few random notes:

    1. I was reading an article about that movie about the dybbuk that ALSO claims to be based on a true story and apparently there’s absolutely no standard for claiming “true storiness”. So in this case, there’s kids that go to a school where there are teachers so…true story!

    2. Would just like to note the presence of the Extraneous Love Story (TM), which is a very important sub-plot in any Commoner Turned Hero movie.

    3. What was the line about districts phones’ ringing off the hook about? Just curious as I prefer to save my movie-going experiences for ones where things blow up and it doesn’t look like there are any fiery explosions…

  16. Kay says:

    Sheer bias. Because you don’t believe in charter schools, you wanted the movie to be bad? Give me a break. You aren’t a reviewer, you’re a political supporter designed as a reviewer. Parents need school choice.

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      I guess I’m busted. I hope that this won’t invalidate my review of ‘Finding Nemo.’

    • Kate Sannicks-Lerner says:

      Kay, no, not at all. SOME parents have been misdirected and led to believe they need school choice. School choice is NOT what you’ve been sold!

      First of all, it’s DOUBLE-DIPPING into YOUR paycheck – you’re paying twice for education!

      Second, there is NO guarantee that you’ll 1) get into the school of your so-called “choice,” or 2) that the schools from which you can choose will be any better than the school you are trying to flee.

      Third, it is a widely disseminated MYTH that public schools are failing. For the most part, the public school system is just fine. Results are being intentionally SKEWED by selective inclusion of economically challenged schools!

      Fourth, data shows that the most consistent predictor of academic success is SOCIOECONOMIC STATUS. Equitably fund schools and provide social opportunities to all, and guess what you get? After all, you know what a rising tide does, don’t you?

      Last, but certainly not least, public policy and socioeconomic gamesmanship is what causes the public schools that are failing to fail! Hm…

      Data is NOT spelled B-I-A-S!

    • CitizensArrest says:

      Parents are only being given the choices pre-selected for them by those who would pick their pockets and rob their children’s future. You are right, we do need choice and my first choice is to not be ignored, to have a real say in how my tax dollars are spent. It must be REAL choice where parents define the options, not the illusion of choice we are afflicted with now. Wake up!

    • Gary says:

      For those who say the movie review is biased, here’s a review from LA Times.,0,2053199.story
      “This poor film is so shamelessly manipulative and hopelessly bogus it will make you bite your tongue in regret and despair.”

      Presciently, Mr. Rubinstein calls out many phoniness in the movie. One of the phoniness, again, from LATimes:

      “Jamie even involves her brand new boyfriend Michael (Oscar Isaac), whose use of music in the classroom magically makes him the only effective teacher Adams has”

      Conclusion for LATimes:
      “Though the film’s pernicious propagandistic bias is irritating and misleading, it can’t be overemphasized that what is really wrong with this film is how feeble it is dramatically. … Anyone who values their one and only life would be well-advised not to spend two hours of it here.”

  17. Sean J. says:

    While I don’t necessarily agree with all of your posts, Gary, this one was SPOT ON. I just saw the movie and I laughed out loud at your thoughts on certain scenes as these were the exact same questions my friends and I had while watching.

    My favorite part was the subtle shout out to how great TFA teachers are compared to other teachers. We’re all about line dancing with our children.

  18. Pingback: My Review of ‘Won’t Back Down’ and Notes from Panel « Teacher Under Construction

  19. Pingback: My Review of ‘Won’t Back Down’ and Notes from Panel « @ the chalk face

  20. Pingback: Gary Rubinstein Reviews “Won’t Back Down” « Diane Ravitch's blog

  21. Roslyn says:

    I saw this movie while attend the National Charter School Convention in June. It was a waste of time. I was the president of a charter school for 5 years.

  22. Roslyn says:


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