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Why Won’t Back Down Won't Last Long

A short quiz. The possible answers:

A. The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2, in which a young girl cavorts with vampires and werewolves.

B. Playing for Keeps, which features Gerard Butler as a washed-up soccer player who must choose among Jessica Biel, Uma Thurman and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

C. Won’t Back Down, in which a mother and a teacher take over a failing school.

The question: Which one is inspired by actual events?

My money’s on Playing for Keeps. Gerard Butler’s a very good-looking guy—it could happen.

Won’t Back Down—which advertises itself as “inspired by actual events”—tells the fictional story of the takeover of John Adams Elementary School in Pittsburgh by Jamie Fitzpatrick (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a plucky working-class single mom with a dyslexic daughter, and Nona Alberts (Viola Davis), a teacher in the school whose own child has learning difficulties.

Frustrated by the fact that her daughter is placed in a classroom with a teacher indifferent to her needs, Jamie embarks on a campaign to take over the school using a rarely successful provision of state law that allows a failing school to be converted into a charter school if half or more of the school’s teachers and parents sign a petition.

The story is modeled on the “parent-trigger” legislation passed in California in 2010. The “actual events” that “inspired” the film, I suppose, are the enactment of a “parent-trigger” law—but no successful “parent-trigger” school takeover has ever taken place.

The melodramatic touches are heavy-handed, on the order of a 1980s “Disease-of-the Week” made-for-TV movie. The director helpfully provides loud string music to signal that something dramatic is happening on the screen, just in case the audience might not grasp that fact. Nuance and subtlety are dropped in favor of heroes and villains. The heroes, of course, are the mom and the teacher. You can tell that Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character is working-class and never went to college because she has a tattoo over her left breast and some star tattoos on her right wrist, and uses words like “tenurized.” And—gasp!—she’s dyslexic, too! Viola Davis’ character was once Pittsburgh’s elementary school teacher of the year, but due to a personal tragedy she lost her way and fell into a rut in her teaching.

The villain, in case you’re wondering, is the teachers’ union. Apparently, the union awards lifetime tenure to teachers, allows a school to get an “F” for 19 years in a row, and negotiates a 600-page contract that precludes teachers from staying after school to help the kids. It also prohibits children from being diagnosed with learning disabilities, and evidently works behind the scenes to ensure that children don’t receive the services they need. Curse you, teachers’ union! You’re the Disease of the Week!

If my experience viewing the film in a Harlem movie theater is a guide, Won’t Back Down will have a short run. (My screening grossed $42 in box-office receipts and a lot of talking back to the characters on screen.) It’s just a badly made movie in terms of plot and execution.

Fears that the film will take on an outsized importance in ongoing education policy debates are, I think, misguided. Who now watches, or talks about, Waiting for “Superman”? Film-maker Davis Guggenheim has returned to his natural element, directing a documentary on rock band U2 and a short documentary on Barack Obama’s first term narrated by Tom Hanks. The film’s website is reduced to promoting DVD house parties and providing an action checklist (Demand great schools! Write your elected officials! Demand high standards! Write your governor!) that was already outdated when the film was released two years ago.

Who needs Waiting for “Superman” when you’ve got Arne Duncan and Race to the Top?

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Aaron Pallas

Aaron Pallas is Professor of Sociology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University.  He has also taught at Johns Hopkins University, Michigan State Uni...