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Won't Back Down (2012)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
Blu-ray Disc Released: 1/15/2013
All Ratings out of
Review by Mike Long, Posted on 1/16/2013
(Hopefully) We all have a cache of general knowledge which we use and add to in everyday life. When we watch a movie, we access this knowledge in order to understand what is happening. This allows us to relate to the story. But, have you ever watched a movie with someone whose knowledge of the subject matter went beyond general? I'm talking about the kind of situation where the person has intimate knowledge of the film's subject and themes and some things hit too close to home. My wife works in education, so I got a first-hand account of this while watching Won't Back Down, a movie which asks some tough questions about American schools.
Won't Back Down takes place in modern-day Pittsburgh. Jamie (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a single mom who works two jobs in order to take care of her daughter, Malia (Emily Alyn Lind). Malia has dyslexia and attends one of the worst schools in the city. She's in third grade, but can't read and her teacher doesn't care. Nona (Viola Davis) is a teacher at this same school and she's having troubles of her own. Her marriage to Charles (Lance Reddick) has ended and she worries about her son, Cody (Dante Brown), who has been labeled as "slow". Jamie can't afford private school for Malia and attempts to change classes have failed. While visiting the school district office, Jamie learns that parents and teachers can petition to have control of the school turned over to them, so that they can teach in a different way. Jamie approaches Nona about this, but the teacher refuses. However, Jamie is tenacious, and soon the two mothers embark on a campaign to convince the teachers and families of the school that a positive change is possible. But, they soon meet with opposition from the teacher's union, whose leader, Arthur Gould (Ned Eisenberg), sees this plan as something which could set a dangerous precedent.
As someone who dabbles in screenwriting, I appreciate a well-written story. And, unless that story is a fantasy or a David Lynch-esque art movie, it should contains specific and clear details. Won't Back Down claims to be "Inspired by Actual Events", so it should certainly be detailed. However, there were two big plot points in the movie where were never clearly explained and this really hurt the film...and this 2-hour movie had plenty of time to explain things. First of all, Jamie and Nona's plan is never clearly explained. They keep saying "Do you want to make a new school?", which implies a "new school", but they will actually be taking over an existing school. But, it's never made clear what this will entail. Will Nona be the principal? Will the parents be teachers too? Will it house the same students? It's all way too vague. Secondly, the point is driven home over and over that teachers at this "new school" won't be a part of the teacher's union and this is part of the scare tactics to fight against Jamie and Nona. But, again, things are never spelled out. Seriously, this point is in seemingly every scene from the mid-point of the film on, but no one ever takes a moment to explain why teachers in a school in the state could not be a part of the state teacher's union. These issues kept pulling me out of the movie. Imagine if they never showed the Death Star in Star Wars or explained what it was, but they kept talking about it and you'll get an idea of what this was like.
Beyond that huge problem, Won't Back Down is a serviceable melodrama. I'm not sure about the "actual events" which "inspired" the story, but once the central plot is in place, the story plays out as you would expect, with few surprises. We get the usual mixture of good guys and bad guys and we watch as each goes through the motions. Obviously, the movie wants to be a rousing story about how an underdog attempts to overthrow the system, but due to the script problems outlined above and the film's long running time, most viewers will cease to care, and the emotional level rarely rises above that of a LifeTime movie. I will say that the movie offers some very nice and subtle touches which address how Jamie's parenting style affects Malia. The movie never comes right out and condemns her, but if you pay attention, you'll see what I mean. And, the movie does itself a favor by ending on a very poignant moment which was very clever.
Director Daniel Barnz, who previously helmedBeastly, has assembled a great cast here. Fresh off of getting robbed at the Oscars, Viola Davis turns in another good performance as a woman who must be strong, but is very, very tired. Maggie Gyllenhaal is believable as the free-spirit mom who doesn't understand how she comes across to others. (Her wardrobe really aids her in the role.) Oscar Isaac, who we saw punching women in Sucker Punch, is fine as the music teacher who is torn between job security and helping Jamie.
Have you ever noticed that schools in movies are either awful inner-city schools or fancy suburban ones? Don't kids in movies ever go to nice, middle-of-the-road schools? I guess that most would consider that boring. Well if you like the inner-city school stories, you'll find plenty to live in Won't Back Down. And while the story is intriguing, the movie never digs deep enough to truly make this a moving experience.
Won't Back Down tells us that all residents of Pittsburg decorate their houses in sports banners on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 36 Mbps. The image is fairly sharp and clear, showing no defects from the source material. There is some mild grain in some scenes, which I feel Barnz probably did on purpose to add to the gritty reality of the movie. The colors look good and the image is never overly dark or bright. The level of detail is good and the exterior shots show a generous amount of depth. The Disc carries a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 3.7 Mbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. Being a drama, we don't get a great deal of dynamic effects here. The crowd scenes provide some nice stereo and surround effects and the big meeting scene offers some individual sounds coming from the rear channels. Otherwise, we are treated to well-balanced dialogue and music coming from the center channel.
The Won't Back Down Blu-ray Disc contains only a handful of extras. We begin with an AUDIO COMMENTARY from Director Daniel Barnz. The Disc contains six DELETED SCENES which run about 9 minutes and can be viewed with commentary from Barnz. These are brief and there's no new information or subplots here. "A Tribute to Teachers" (4 minutes) has the cast and Barnz reminiscing about teachers from their lives who inspired or motivated them. These same speakers return in "The Importance of Education" (5 minutes), where they talk about the themes of the film and how they reflect the state of education in America today. The final extra is the THEATRICAL TRAILER for the film.
Review by Mike Long. Copyright 2013.