Hope is a dangerous thing. Who knows that line? While it may have been used in an entirely different setting in 1994’s The Shawshank Redemption that classic film line applies perfectly in 20th Century Fox’s new movie, Won’t Back Down. The very first thing that audiences will notice in this movie is its seeming throwback to Stand and Deliver. The story presented in this new work focuses on two single mothers–played by Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal–who are fed up with the way in which the public school system in their city is handling their kids…or rather not handling them. Fittingly, the movie is set against the backdrop of one of America’s most famed cities, Pittsburgh. As much as people may dislike Pittsburgh’s sports teams, Jamie’s (Maggie Gyllenhaal) allegiance to the Steelers, Penguins, and Pirates is a statement in itself. It all combines to make for a movie that while it may not be an Oscar contender, is a movie that will hopefully have other parents and teachers across the country taking notice and reacting. And now that it’s available on DVD and Blu-ray, audiences will gain a whole new appreciation for the movie.
The primary story of Won’t Back Down is much more real than people might want to believe. Despite what other critic may believe Won’t Back Down is not an attack on unions. Rather, it’s an unbiased work that does take into account both the side of the teachers and parents, and that of the unions. Even writer/director Daniel Barnz notes in the audio commentary included in the new home release that he did not set out to make an anti-union story. He clearly states that he is in fact a supporter of unions. But he also wanted to point out where unions have come up short. What so many audiences fail to understand with this work is that it attempts not to attack unions but to show that unions and many teachers within unions have lost sight of what’s really important. He does an excellent job of showing that through a number of scenes. He is simply trying to show through this story that while teachers unions are doing great things, there is still work that must be done. In understanding this, it really serves to bring about a whole new dialogue between parents and teachers. In that same vein, Barnz notes that having a background in education in a manner of speaking, he wanted to craft a story that saw teachers and parents being forced to work together. With any luck, after seeing this movie, parents and teachers will at least consider coming together if only to help the children.
The social message stated in Won’t Back Down is done so in a tastefully and artistic manner. It successfully creates a basis for a much needed discussion, even now in the twenty-first century. Understanding that Barnz had no intent on taking one side or the other in itself makes the movie a success. It isn’t all that makes the movie a success. The filmmaking itself plays a big role in the movie’s success, too. Right from its earliest moments, audiences watching the new home release will gain more appreciation for the filmmaking in the commentary thanks to Barnz commenting on the transition of the less colorful background early on to the use of much brighter colors by the story’s end. Barnz notes in the audio commentary that the transition of dimmer, less “alive” colors to much brighter and warmer colors by the story’s end was used to heighten the story’s emotional state. This was something so subtle that had a person not listened to the audio commentary, never would have been caught. Understanding this adds that much more enjoyment to the story.
It may come across as totally unnoticeable to some, but having the story set against the backdrop of Pittsburgh makes it that much harder hitting. Barnz also comments on this through the additional commentary. Pittsburgh was built on the backs of hard working Americans. But then something changed, destroying businesses and jobs in the city. When that happened, the trickle-down effect from that was pretty clear. The state of that one school was a reflection of what had happened to the city. What’s more, as much as people may want to deny it, Adams Elementary could be any school in the country. So many cities have been decimated for economic reasons. And the effect of that has trickled down to those cities’ schools thus making them a prime point for making this movie.
Something else that viewers should take into account in watching Won’t Back Down is that it is not just some Ron Clark style dream scenario. Even in watching the new home release with commentary, many audiences might still feel that ambivalence and say well I’m just one person. How can I make a difference? One look around shows that one person can make a difference. There seems to be a ride in charter schools, and a drastically changing attitude about what’s happening with public education across the country. This movie serves as proof positive that change can and does happen. All it takes is a positive attitude and a drive to give children one thing: HOPE.
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