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Education Meltdown: Why Won’t Back Down Could Be This Generation’s China Syndrome

Can advocates of school reform break through with popular culture?

by
R.J. Moeller

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October 3, 2012 - 7:00 am
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If you claim to care about the state of American public education and don’t see the new Daniel Barnz film Won’t Back Down, please find the nearest child in your general vicinity and apologize to them for being a part of the problem.

Then go and find Michael Douglas, Jane Fonda, and the ghost of Jack Lemmon to let them know that Hollywood has finally produced a new film that will replace The China Syndrome, the feel-good film of the ’70s that got nuclear energy banned. If we play our cards right, Won’t Back Down will become the movie that could become the one teachers and professors reference when discussing the positive impact pop culture can have on public policy. More on this in a minute.

There are two reasons behind my overwhelming endorsement of the movie which opened nation-wide last week.

The first is simple: It’s a really well-made, well-acted, well-crafted piece of cinema.

Writer/Director Barnz has assembled an excellent cast — Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis and Holly Hunter — and constructed a compelling story about the crisis in education. Set in the inner city of Pittsburgh, Won’t Back Down chronicles two mothers’ (Gyllenhaal and Davis) seemingly Sisyphean task of taking on the teachers’ unions.

Gyllenhaal’s feisty character is Jamie Fitzpatrick, a single mom who works multiple jobs to provide for her young daughter, a 2nd grade student at John Adams Elementary who suffers from dyslexia. Davis deftly portrays Nona Alberts, a world-weary teacher at the same school who wallows in a toxic mixture of disgust and mounting guilt over a broken system and her own second-best effort in the classroom.

Neither woman is perfect, but both desperately want the quintessential American dream for their kids: a dynamic education that will lead to better lives than their own.

Holly Hunter plays a conflicted union boss who serves as the on-screen voice of the average American who sees and hears about the failures of public education, but isn’t quite sure how to remedy it.

While the film is a tad bit predictable in its “David vs. Goliath” template, Won’t Back Down breathes new life into the under-dog story audiences appreciate. Barnz’ storytelling abilities grab and hold your attention for the entire 121 minutes, and if the subject matter weren’t so “controversial” in the progressively hallowed hills of Hollywood, someone from the project would have a serious shot at an Oscar nod.

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