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Film critic: 'Won't Back Down' is anti-teachers union 'Trojan Horse'

As a professional film critic, Salon's Andrew O'Hehir is used to watching bad movies.

As a professional film critic, Salon's Andrew O'Hehir is used to watching bad movies. But sometimes a movie surpasses bad and becomes even less than the sum of its parts. On Monday's The Cycle, O'Hehir argued that Won't Back Down, a controversial new movie starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis is such a film. The movie isn't just bad, he said; it's bad anti-union propaganda.

"This movie is a somewhat cleverly packaged, not all that cleverly packaged kind of Trojan Horse," he said, which is "really just trying to convince you that the teachers union is responsible for everything that's wrong with American education."

In the film, Gyllenhaal and Davis play a single parent and a public school teacher, respectively, who fight an intransigent teachers union boss in order to stage a parental takeover of their local school through what's called a "parent-trigger" law. The film was produced by Walden Media, the same production company behind the pro-charter school documentary Waiting for Superman. Critics such as education professor Rick Ayers have also accused that film of being anti-union.

"I'm not against charter schools in principle," said O'Hehir. "I think there are a lot of things to talk about there. But when you're talking about this agenda, I think something very specific is at stake."

In his review of Won't Back Down for Salon, O'Hehir was even more withering, calling the film "simpering, pseudo-inspirational pap, constructed with painful awkwardness and disconnected from any narrative plausibility or social reality. Our two appealing leads beam and glow at each other with an almost hostile brilliance, while supporting stereotypes stand around them delivering on-the-nose platitudes."

But regardless of the movie's merits—or the merits of its pro-parent-trigger message—both movie and policy seem to enjoy at least some bipartisan support. Education activist Michelle Rhee screened the film at both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, and Democrats appear to be divided on its message.

That said, bipartisan appeal has not translated into box office success.