Won’t Back Down


There's no cause so great that matching t-shirts won't solve.

There’s no cause so great that matching t-shirts won’t solve.

(2012) True Life Drama (20th Century Fox) Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Oscar Isaac, Holly Hunter, Rosie Perez, Emily Alyn Lind, Dante Brown, Lance Reddick, Ving Rhames, Bill Nunn, Ned Eisenberg, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Lisa Colon-Zayas, Nancy Bach, Keith Flippen, Robert Haley, Lucia Forte, Sarab Kamoo, Teri Clark Linden, Joe Coyle, Jennifer Massey. Directed by Daniel Barnz

When it comes to our kids, we are all agreed on one thing; a good education is important. Sadly, not all kids receive one. Areas which are economically under-advantaged tend to receive shoddy educations in crumbling facilities from disinterested teachers.

But some parents won’t take that situation lying down. Jamie Fitzpatrick (Gyllenhaal) works at a car dealership and tends bar at night to make ends meet. Her daughter Malia (Lind) is dyslexic and gets bullied at her Pittsburgh school, all under the eyes of teachers who don’t care and a principal (Nunn) hamstrung by union regulations and a venal school board. Fed up, Jamie tries to get her daughter into a charter school, but her number isn’t picked in the lottery.

There’s another parent there that Jamie is surprised to see – Nona Alberts (Davis), a teacher at Jamie’s school. Why doesn’t Nona try to make things better at her own school for her own daughter? Of course she’s tried to, but has hit stone wall after stone wall from the Union and the Board and she’s tired of fighting.

&But there’s a ray of hope; there’s a law on the books that will allow parents to take over a school that is underachieving (as Malia’s school is) but parents so inclined have to jump through an awful lot of hoops in order to do it. That doesn’t dissuade Nona and Jamie as they take on the Union, who try to intimidate the teachers with potential job loss (which is a very real possibility) and the School Board, who don’t want to cede control of one of their schools to parents lest it spark a district-wide revolt.

In the midst of this, single Jamie finds a boyfriend in math teacher Michael Perry (Isaac) who gets a bit miffed whenever Jamie expresses her frustration with the Union but he ends up being a staunch ally and Jamie and Nona slowly begin to win the parents to their side, giving them all matching T-shirts for a rally (was there ever a cause that didn’t benefit from matching t-shirts?) that will take on those who stand against their kids having a fighting chance at a future.

If this sounds a bit strident and political, it’s because it is. I won’t say that the film is outright anti-Union, but it does paint the Union as villainous, more concerned about protecting bad teachers than about educating the children of their communities. The School Board doesn’t come off much better, painted as a group that plays politics when it comes to funding and personnel. I suppose your reaction to the film is going to depend on your point of view; those who are very much pro-Union are going to have issues with it, those who think that privatizing education is the way to go will love it.

That set aside let’s look at the filmmaking itself. Technically, the film is decent – nothing to write home about on the one hand but on the other competently done. It’s hard to make the less prosperous end of Pittsburgh look glamorous but Barnz at least makes it look like a nice community to live in for the most part.

The cast is terrific, with five Oscar nominees (past and future) and/or winners (Hunter, who plays the smug Union head here, won for The Piano in 1987). Gyllenhaal is marvelous and for Davis who was just beginning to cement her reputation as a talented actress when this was made also is memorable as the teacher who goes from zombie to ace during the course of the movie. Isaac, essentially an unknown when he made this, also is fine as the love interest.

While I don’t necessary agree with the filmmakers’ point of view – the Teachers Union isn’t the sole reason for problems with American education; one has to also look at the decline of parental involvement, poverty, the rise of distractions like videogames and the Internet and also the high cost of higher education for the reason why education has fallen so drastically. Adding new charter schools, vouchers and other solutions advanced from the right aren’t necessarily the only things needed but don’t address other conditions that are obstacles to every child receiving a proper education.

This is a complicated issue and while I think that the hearts of the cast and crew are in the right place, the execution takes a kind of Hollywood “happy ending in 90 minutes guaranteed” point of view. Nevertheless I don’t necessarily think that it’s a bad thing to call attention to issues that affect all of us – and the education of our children certainly does. Innovation has to come from somewhere and if our population is lagging behind the rest of the world in know-how and let’s face it, desire to innovate, we could find ourselves a third world nation sooner than we think.

WHY RENT THIS: Attempts to tackle real issues facing modern education. Fine performances by Gyllenhaal and Davis.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little smug and simplistic. Pro-union viewers will be outraged.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild profanity and thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Loosely based (very loosely based) on actual events in Sunland-Tujunga, California in 2010.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are a couple of featurettes here, The Importance of Education and the somewhat disingenuous Tribute to Teachers considering how much teacher-bashing the film does.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.3M on a $19M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Waiting for “Superman”
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Time That Remains

Green Zone


Green Zone

Matt Damon gets medieval on some critic's ass.

(Universal) Matt Damon, Greg Kinnear, Brendan Gleeson, Amy Ryan, Jason Isaacs, Khalid Abdalla, Igal Naor, Said Faraj, Jerry Della Salla, Raad Rawi, Michael O’Neill, Nicoye Banks, Sean Huze, Paul Karsko. Directed by Paul Greengrass

Perhaps one of the most important questions of our time is why we invaded Iraq in 2003. It is the standard by which the United States will be judged as a nation as we move forward into the 21st century; our actions in invading a sovereign nation without true justification have tarnished our reputation forever.

Army Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Damon) is in charge of a team of soldiers whose mission is to locate and neutralize weapons of mass destruction the Iraqis have hidden in caches around Baghdad and the surrounding areas. It is early in the war, and the country is still waiting on definitive proof that the Saddam Hussein had been indeed manufacturing WMD.

He is sent to a location which is being peppered by a sniper in a nearby tower. Iraqi citizens are looting the industrial site like crazy and Miller is concerned that some of them may be getting away with dangerous material that could be used against Iraqi civilians or coalition soldiers. Despite the fact that the site isn’t secure, he orders his men to go in and take out the sniper, which they do in a professional, efficient manner. Once he gets into the site, however, he discovers nothing there – no weapons, nothing dangerous, only toilet parts and years worth of pigeon droppings.

This turns out to be the third straight supposed WMD site that the team has been to that has been completely devoid of anything resembling weapons. Miller knows that the intelligence they have been getting is faulty. While the military command is taking the position that the Iraqis had moved the weapons from these sites, Miller knows that there had never been weapons there. He questions the intelligence at a staff meeting attended by CIA analyst Martin Brown (Gleeson) who approaches Miller afterwards, completely in agreement with Miller that there is something fishy going on. He gives Miller his card with the request that he keep him in the loop as to what Miller’s team finds on their next mission, which Miller agrees to do.

In the meantime, Clark Poundstone (Kinnear), a high-ranking functionary in the White House with Pentagon connections, is escorting an Iraqi exile (Rawi) home to Baghdad. Poundstone is eager to install him as the new leader of Iraq. Wall Street Journal reporter Lawrie Dayne (Ryan) is covering the trip; it was her articles on government reports about WMD that helped turn the public towards invasion. She knows that most of the government intelligence came from a single source; a high-ranking Iraqi government official known only as “Magellan.” Because no WMD had turned up despite the Army’s best efforts to find them, she is concerned that her story asserting that they were there may turn out to be false. She wants to talk to Magellan directly but Poundstone demurs, stating that the debriefing process is ongoing.

While on his next assignment fruitlessly digging for a possible underground WMD site, Miller is approached by an Iraqi national named Freddie (Abdalla) who informs him of a meeting taking place in a nearby home of high-ranking Iraqi officials. Something about Freddie’s story rings true to Miller and he decides to go investigate, even though Wilkins (Della Salla), his second-in-command, worries that they are being led into an ambush.

The soldiers enter the house to find that such a meeting is indeed taking place and that one of the participants is none other than General Al-Rawi (Naor), Saddam’s highest-ranking military official and certainly the man who would have the most information about any WMD that might be hidden in Iraq. Although Al-Rawi escapes, he leaves behind a notebook which Miller is anxious to deliver to his CIA contact Brown. However, when the prisoners taken from the meeting are abducted by American Special Forces soldiers led by the arrogant Briggs (Isaacs), Miller knows that something is more than just terribly wrong.

This is ostensibly an action thriller and it is by no means meant to be a documentary about actual events in Iraq. The premise, however, is valid – to this day we have yet to locate any WMD in Iraq and the entire premise for invasion has been justifiably labeled a sham. Whether Greengrass’ theory is true or not, it is merely that – a theory – and certainly our government is guilty at the very least of incompetently not fact-checking to make sure that there were indeed WMD in Iraq.

Some of the events here happened as portrayed. The CIA was left out of the WMD loop and CIA sources reported at the time that there hadn’t been any WMD since the first Gulf War. President Bush did land on an aircraft carrier and proclaim “Mission Accomplished,” which was a premature pronouncement of historic proportions. Public opinion was turned towards a series of news articles and television reports that reported the presence of WMD in Iraq that later turned out to have been false. The American people were indeed lied to.

But that’s neither here nor there as far as this review should be concerned. What is important is that the movie is worth seeing, and it is indeed that. Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass had previously collaborated on the second two movies of the Bourne trilogy, and those are still regarded as some of the best action films of recent years. Green Zone does indeed meet those standards and Damon is one of the primary reasons why.

As Roy Miller, he is a professional soldier, assiduously trained but with a mind of his own. He sees bad information at every turn and no matter how many times his commanders tell him just to look the other way and do his job without question, he can’t bring himself to do it. Yeah, he’s a bit of a super-soldier in that he seems incapable of being stopped but quite frankly, that’s okay in an action film where we expect our heroes to be somewhat unstoppable.

Kinnear makes for a smarmy villain, a viper in weasel’s clothes that exploits political necessity and is willing to do whatever it takes to cover up his crimes. Kinnear, who of late has been playing lighter roles, excels here in a role that is a bit outside his comfort zone. Gleeson, who is one of the best character actors working today (see In Bruges if you don’t believe me), is solid here. He is gruff, grumpy and a grizzled veteran of the Middle East who sees through the bull pucky and understands the situation for what it is; a cover-up. He is jaded and worn down from years of being assigned to one of the most complex, volatile regions on Earth, but still maintains his own principles nonetheless.

Greengrass utilizes the hand-held camera quite a bit during the action sequences to convey the chaos of the scene, and while I don’t necessarily have a problem with the concept, I think he overuses it here. After awhile, I actually had to  turn my head from the screen in order to stave off the dizziness and queasiness that accompanies that kind of cinematography. A little bit of hand-held goes a long way, gentlemen.

What I like most about Green Zone is that it is a morality play disguised as an action movie. While the filmmaker’s leanings are quite easy to suss out, it does invite you to think also about what blindly accepting the word of any government. After all, even the best governments are made up of human beings, and those human beings often have agendas of their own, agendas that might not necessarily be in the best interest of their own country. That’s the scariest part of the movie.

REASONS TO GO: This is a morality play wrapped in an action movie framework. Damon is rock-solid as Miller.   

REASONS TO STAY: Greengrass uses the hand-held camera to such an extent that even audience members without vertigo issues were getting dizzy.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of violence, including some scenes of torture and foul language throughout. Only for mature teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character of Lawrie Dayne is loosely based on Judith Miller of the New York Times.

HOME OR THEATER: As one of the first big action movies of the year you may be tempted to see it in the theater, but quite frankly, the overuse of shaky hand-held cam shots make this a better fit for the home screen.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: 12 Rounds