The new movie “Won’t Back Down” opened on Friday amid a flurry of protests and harsh criticism from the American Federation of Teachers, but Maggie Gyllenhaal -- who stars in the film as a tenacious single mother on a crusade against a failing elementary school -- says it’s not an anti-union movie.
The actress was unapologetic this week as she promoted the movie, telling interviewers that classifying “Won’t Back Down” as an unequivocally anti-union movie is an “oversimplified” way of viewing the issue.
“Clearly -- and I don't know anyone who’d disagree -- there are huge problems with the teachers union,” she told the Philadelphia Daily News on Friday. “So you can be in support of a teachers union and unions in general, but if you don't take the time to look at things that are broken ... then it will fall apart completely.”
In the interview, Gyllenhaal said she comes from a family of proud leftists, and that she herself is staunchly pro-union. However, she also suggested that the quickness with which critics have come out to blast “Won’t Back Down” as a crack against the labor movement shows intolerance among the pro-union camp. “Can we not even take a look at ways that the teachers union isn't functioning without being called anti-union?” she said.
Earlier this week, Gyllenhaal gave a similar explanation when she appeared on NBC’s “Today” show, saying that she supports unions fundamentally but “finds some faults” with them.
In “Won’t Back Down,” Gyllenhaal’s character invokes the so-called parent-trigger law -- a real-life statute first passed in California, which allows parents and teachers to reclaim a failing school. The character’s attempts to reclaim her daughter’s Pittsburgh school are hindered by a bullying union representative played by Holly Hunter.
Last month, Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, issued a public letter criticizing “Won’t Back Down” as a “false and misleading depiction of teachers and unions.”
Union supporters protested screenings of the movie in New York and Los Angeles. And Michael Mulgrew, president of New York City’s United Federation of Teachers, told the New York Times that the movie -- which is inspired by an actual incident in which a California parent invoked the parent-trigger law -- is a “work of fiction.” He told the paper that, in real life, previous attempts by parents to reclaim schools have failed.
“Won’t Back Down” was financed by Phil Anschutz, the conservative Christian billionaire who was also the force behind the 2010 documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman,’” another movie critical of teachers unions.
Gyllenhaal, herself a new parent, has expressed concern that the controversy surrounding the movie will overshadow its overall message. “I hope it activates people to do something about education in our country,” she told the Los Angeles Times.
Potential viewers might not care either way. Since the film’s opening on Friday, reviews of “Won’t Back Down” have been mostly brutal. USA Today said it is “repeatedly focused on a superficial depiction of the powerful teachers union,” while the Washington Post called it “so didactic that viewers are likely to feel less uplifted than lectured.”
The movie currently has a rating of 33 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.