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'Won't Back Down' review: overly hammy

Maggie Gyllenhaal, from left, Rosie Perez and Viola

Maggie Gyllenhaal, from left, Rosie Perez and Viola Davis in "Won't Back Down." Credit: AP

How unpopular are teachers unions? Here's one measure: They're now the villains in a Hollywood movie.

"Won't Back Down," an inspirational drama about an inner-city school, does for teachers unions what Arnold Schwarzenegger flicks once did for Russians. In this full-throated endorsement of the controversial parent-trigger laws that allow parents to take over failing schools (here euphemized as the "fail-safe law"), Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Jamie Fitzpatrick, a hardworking mom whose dyslexic daughter is floundering at Pittsburgh's bottom-rung Adams Elementary. Fed up, Jamie and a disillusioned teacher, Nona Alberts (Viola Davis), begin campaigning to turn Adams into a non-unionized charter that can fire underperforming staff. But that means battling the nefarious Teachers Association of Pittsburgh, which counterattacks with disinformation, character smears and bribery.

There are grains of truth in this story, along with solid performances and smooth directing from co-writer Daniel Barnz ("Phoebe in Wonderland"). But despite its polish, "Won't Back Down" is still propaganda. Not because its production company, Walden Media, is owned by conservative billionaire Philip Anschutz (Walden also makes apolitical kids' films), but because this movie fears nuance, pushes an agenda and demonizes its opposition.

Adams Elementary is failing not because of poverty, overworked parents or language barriers among immigrant families; its one and only obstacle to providing great education is tenured teachers, variously labeled "deadbeats" and "zombies." Oscar Isaac and Rosie Perez, as Nona's worried colleagues, pay lip service to union loyalty, but their arguments are emotional, never rational. Holly Hunter, as a conflicted administrator, delivers a wistful speech that effectively likens unions to stuffed animals best outgrown. As for Adams' funding -- public or private? -- that's an important can of worms left unopened.

Whatever you think about these issues, "Won't Back Down" won't expand your horizons. It's more likely to harden your position. That's the opposite of education.

PLOT A single mom and a disillusioned teacher try to change a failing public school.

RATING PG (mild language, some mature themes)

CAST Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Oscar Isaac, Holly Hunter


BOTTOM LINE All the ingredients for an illuminating drama, but the ham-handed propaganda will leave a sour taste no matter what your politics.

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