Seeing an inspiring film boosting strong female characters seems exciting, on the surface. Won’t Back Down initially caught my eye because I’m usually happy to see Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis and Holly Hunter. But when it comes to movies, I’d rather snack on popcorn with my flicks than be force-fed propaganda.
It’s not the topic of Won’t Back Down that turns me off. I’m concerned about education, and I have been on all sides of the table, so I’d love to see the issues portrayed well. I am a parent of two children who have been, at various times, in private school, in public grade, middle and high-schools, and in a public charter school for the arts and sciences. When they were babies I was the director and teacher of a private alternative school, and I’ve worked on early learning, education and poverty policy at the governmental level.
And all of that aside, I love movies. Especially the few big Hollywood films that feature women.
But I don’t love propaganda, from the right or the left.
Won’t Back Down was financed by billionaire Philip Anshutz, a Christian right-wing mogul with a conservative agenda and a desire to profit from educational reform, and it shows. His Walden Media company didn’t make this film to showcase Hollywood’s female stars or to provide a warm-hearted story of inspiration to parents, or even to win an shiny Oscar. They are using filmmaking as political propaganda in support of “Trigger Laws,” and the movie manipulates policy facts to fit that goal. I’m not a fan of politicos who exploit audiences. In fact, it frightens me in the way fascism frightens me.
And I certainly don’t want to give my high-dollar ticket money to Walden Media, especially since Anshutz is also a major anti-gay political operative. I’m boycotting Chick-Fil-A, and they aren’t nearly as involved in smoke-and-mirrors propaganda as Anshutz is.
But, a film is a film, one might say. Can’t we just shhh! and enjoy the movie? Well, the problem with that is propaganda makes for lousy storytelling. Sometimes, though, major chords can be so well orchestrated that bad stories are emotionally satisfying. Fortunately, Won’t Back Down wasn’t that good. Critics agree. (Today it’s ranked 35% Rotten.)
Won’t Back Down relies on cliches and emotional indulgence to make its heavy-handed point. It’s laden with awkardly-inserted statistics and stilted dialogue. As the parent of a learning-disabled child I found it insulting for our kids’ differences to be exploited as plot devices to somehow blame unions and as sympathy cards to rally a fight without any discussion of what really would benefit them in education reform. Worst, the white-savior overt and covert racism is troubling. (Helen Gyn breaks it down well here.)
Won’t Back Down’s distributors have deployed serious traditional word-of-mouth marketing and blogger outreach. Local screenings and screener DVDs were plentiful and some paid campaigns are running along with persistent Facebook engagement. I’m not sure how the producers will register their ROI–an uptick in public approval for policies that will privatize education and therefore increase the bottom line of companies like Walden Media, I would imagine. That’s a bit different than the tradition expectation of box office profits, and a difference to which we should pay attention, especially if you use your social media platform to promote this movie.
I’m glad I didn’t have to pay to suffer through Won’t Back Down. I would encourage anyone else to save their money for popcorn…while enjoying a better film.
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