IN THE NEW movie "Won't Back Down," Maggie Gyllenhaal ("Crazy Heart," "Hysteria") plays Jamie Fitzpatrick, a blue-collar single mom who takes issue with her daughter's crappy public school.
With no money to send her somewhere else and with the neighborhood's top charter school a long-shot pick in a lottery, Jamie teams up with a disgruntled teacher (Viola Davis), whose son has his own academic issues, to take over and improve the school so it works better for all the children.
"Won't Back Down" has raised the ire of teachers unions, but Gyllenhaal believes that's the wrong way to look at the movie.
"There's no world in which I would ever, EVER make an anti-union movie," she said by phone. "My parents are left of Trotsky. That's just not my world, and neither is it Daniel's [Gladwyne-raised director Daniel Barnz]. I don't know Viola's politics actually, so I can't speak to that. But I think that's just such an oversimplified way of looking at the movie - that it's anti-union.
"But clearly - and I don't know anyone who'd disagree - there are huge problems with the teachers union. 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 - even inside something you support - then it will fall apart completely. Can we not even take a look at ways that the teachers union isn't functioning without being called anti-union? That would be so destructive to creating continually functioning unions."
Once Gyllenhaal tackled the movie's perceived anti-union bias, the new mom opened up about something for which she's always been a strong advocate: education. And now that she's a mother of two, it's an even bigger issue for her. "I have always thought that education is important, particularly in this country, since it's a democracy," she said. "If we are going to choose who our leaders are, we have to have an educated electorate. Otherwise, how are we ever going to have the tools to choose people who will be able to lead us properly?
"I think that's a major, major problem right now and has been for a long time. If you don't know how to think something through - if you haven't been taught those things, if you haven't practiced those things - then you're going to end up choosing your leaders based on just a feeling someone gives you or what their hair looks like, as opposed to really being able to analyze something. Let alone being taught how to read.
"On my mom's side," Gyllenhaal added, "I come from Russian Jewish immigrants, and there was nothing more important than a good education. That's carried on to me, and I feel the same way about my daughter. But in so many ways, it's also a class issue. People who have money will always be able to educate their children well if they want to."
Gyllenhaal, who lives with husband Peter Sarsgaard in New York City, said she would be thrilled if her children could end up in a public school that was great and exciting, but "at the moment my daughter [Ramona] is in private school. The public school that we're zoned for doesn't seem good enough to me.
"But I'm not doing what Jamie does in the movie," she added, "which is going into that school and trying to revolutionize it."
Gyllenhaal said she's kind of ashamed she isn't doing more. "There are people whose entire lives are activism and who are actively sacrificing all kinds of things all the time to make the community they live in a better place," she said. But she hopes that making "Won't Back Down" is in some small way a political action.
"Jamie begins really not thinking of herself as a political person at all," Gyllenhaal said. "Or a hero or an activist. Her actions are just based on her own need and her daughter's need. That's what's particularly heroic about her: It's not even about herself; it's about her daughter. She gets activated and politicized and becomes more of a hero than I have ever been in my own life.
"But at the same time, I would do anything for my children."
Contact Howard Gensler at firstname.lastname@example.org or 215-854-5678.