Sometimes it is hard to separate the medium from the message.
It's baffling to me that Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan says his favorite band is Rage Against the Machine, a group so strident lyrically in its leftist politics that even Michael Moore might be tempted to say, ''Guys, lighten up.'' It's like a vegan claiming her favorite meal is Wendy's Baconator.
Which brings us to ''Won't Back Down.'' The film was made by Walden Media, the same company responsible for the documentary ''Waiting for Superman.'' Both films make the argument that teachers' unions, if not responsible for the breakdown of the public education system in metropolitan areas, are a major impediment in fixing the problem.
Even with the Oprah seal of approval, ''Superman'' only grossed $6 million, nice money for a documentary but not enough to be a game changer. ''Won't Back Down'' tries to deliver a similar message in a more audience-friendly format by appropriating a proven Hollywood formula: the underdog who battles social injustice against a monolithic bureaucracy. However, this time the uncaring bureaucracy is played by a new actor.
As a union official played by Holly Hunter asks, ''When did Norma Rae become the bad guy?''
Welcome to 2012.
WHAT: ''Won't Back Down''
STARS: Viola Davis, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Oscar Isaac, Holly Hunter, Rosie Perez, Ned Eisenberg, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Lance Reddick and Bill Nunn.
STORYLINE: A teacher and a parent lead the fight to take control of a failing elementary school.
DIRECTOR: Daniel Barnz
RATING: PG for thematic elements and language.
How viewers react to ''Won't Back Down'' will depend a lot on the attitudes they bring into the theater. Governors John Kasich's and Scott Walker's sole complaint will be that they have only two thumbs each to thrust upward in support of it. Those who led the fight to overturn Senate Bill 5 in Ohio likely will feel otherwise.
Full disclosure: my wife was a substitute teacher for several years and both of her parents and many of her aunts and uncles were educators. I tend to believe that the problem with the education system isn't that there aren't enough caring teachers like Viola Davis' character; it's that there aren't enough active, involved parents like Maggie Gyllenhaal's character. But we can't fire parents, so it's easier to push the brunt of the problem onto the teachers.
That said, I've also played ''teacher roulette'' with my kids, as in my daughter could end up with one of three teacher next year - ''C'mon teacher A, C'mon teacher A. Anyone but teacher C, anyone but teacher C ... Damn, teacher B. Well, it could have been worse.'' Parents, especially those who are substitute teachers and have teachers in their family, know who the good teachers are and how important they can be.
Gyllenhaal's Jamie Fitzpatrick is the single mother of a dyslexic daughter in the third grade. Unable to afford her private school tuition, Jamie is forced to send her daughter to Adams Elementary School, one of the worst in Pittsburgh. And her daughter ends up in the classroom of probably the worst teacher there, a tenured woman who plays on her cell phone while her students run wild.
Davis' Nona Alberts is one of the better teachers at Adams, and she's facing her own educational dilemma. Her son's test scores are borderline. That, along with behavioral issues attributed to his parent's separation, has the school wanting to transfer him into special education classes.
When neither Jamie nor Nona wins the lottery to get her child into the Rosa Parks School, a charter school portrayed as an educational Xanadu, they team up to wrest control of Adams Elementary from its current administrators and, more importantly, from its teachers' union contract. (While the movie doesn't make a big deal of it, it's telling that at perfect Rosa Parks School, those kids in the auditorium are surrounded by at least one and in most cases two parents).
As it always is in these kinds of movies, the system is rigged for them to fail, they alienate their one-time friends and colleagues in the process and they must resist temptations designed to distract them from their goal.
The screenplay by Brin Hill and Daniel Barnz (who also directs) is heavyhanded at times (I'm sure many conservatives feel the same way watching Aaron Sorkin projects), but it does a better job than most polemical films of presenting the other side of the argument.
And it has fine actors to make its argument. Gyllenhaal does working-class feisty effortlessly and is convincing as Jamie rages against the educational machine.
Davis' Nona has some similarities to her Oscar-nominated role in ''The Help.'' Both are characters who are dragged into a fight reluctantly, but they attack the effort with a steeliness and nobility once they are committed. Davis makes the viewer want to be on her side of the argument.
Rather than whine about Hollywood's bias, the filmmakers have appropriated the medium to deliver their message. Whether I agree with that message entirely or not, it's still mission accomplished.