Maggie Gyllenhaal and director Daniel Barnz adamantly deny their new film "Won't Back Down" bashes U.S. public school teachers and the unions that represent them.

The movie, which media notes say was made in the tradition of inspiring female-crusader movies such as "The Blind Side," "Erin Brockovich" and "Norma Rae," opened in U.S. theaters Friday amid some criticism saying it portrays teachers in a negative light.

In "Won't Back Down," Gyllenhaal plays a frustrated mother who teams with Viola Davis' teacher character -- also a concerned mom -- to revitalize their children's failing Pittsburgh elementary school.

Gyllenhaal and Barnz leaped to the film's defense when asked at a recent New York news conference if the cast knew of conservative entrepreneur Philip Anschutz's involvement in the financing of the film before they signed on, as well as whether the stars would act in a movie that depicts the Screen Actors Guild the way "Won't Back Down" does teachers' unions.

"There has been a lot of rumination about what is the political agenda of this movie," Barnz said. "You have a movie financed by Philip Anschutz and what's really going on here? What's really going on here is a refreshing reach across the ideological divide. This is a conservative, Republican evangelical Christian who hired the Jewish liberal Democrat -- that's me -- to helm this movie. Did he give me a single script note? No. Did he ask me to alter the cut of the movie in any way to advance a political agenda in any way? Absolutely not.

"This is someone who said: 'This is a problem in our country. I have the resources to help a wide exploration of this that could reach a lot of people and I'm going to go out and do it.' And he let us go out and do it and he empowered us. He empowered me and he empowered this very liberal cast and producers to do that."

Barnz continued: "Bashing unions? I think that is an absolute misreading of this movie. This is a movie that supports and criticizes teachers' unions. In fact, Ving Rhames' character says early in the movie... you can support and criticize the unions. That's my position; that's the position of the movie. And I think we ought to be able to say that in our country today. It's a very adult-centric debate with a lot of finger-pointing and scapegoating but people should be talking about what can we do for these kids in failing public schools right now?"

"I think it takes a certain level of education and practice and thinking to be able to hold two somewhat conflicting ideas in your mind at once, which is, like me, you can be an absolute union supporter," Gyllenhaal said. "I'm telling you, I come from such progressive lefties I would not be allowed to go home for Thanksgiving if I made an anti-union movie. Never, ever, have I ever been attacked from the left. It's not a familiar area. I'm not used to being here. But anyway, to be able to say, I fundamentally, wholeheartedly support unions or whoever tries to organize and so many things that they represent. That's how I grew up. And, at the same time, I feel it's important to criticize the things that aren't working inside any institution, otherwise it will ultimately fail you. And there are things in that institution that are not working."

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"Won't Back Down" is rated PG. It co-stars Rosie Perez, Holly Hunter and Oscar Isaac.