Man in the Arena
A classic boxing story with a heart of irony.
Jan 3, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 16 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures
Directed by David O. Russell
If you told me you didn’t like movies about boxing, I’d have to answer that you didn’t really like movies. A good fight picture can generate a raw emotional experience that practically defines the effect of the cinema itself at its most addictive. Every boxing movie basically tells the same story: A poor man with very little going for him but will and determination finds the strength within to risk everything in an effort to transcend his hardscrabble circumstances. The boxer is the great fantasy figure of American movies—the ordinary hero.
Even Martin Scorsese’s extraordinarily unpleasant Raging Bull, widely and incorrectly considered the greatest boxing movie, tells pretty much the same story except that its protagonist is a psychotic louse rather than a decent guy. Critics love Raging Bull because it provides the visceral thrill of a fight picture without the sentimental stuff about the little guy who makes it big. But really, there’s little difference between being manipulated to wring tears and being manipulated to invoke a feeling of cultural superiority over oh-so-physical goons who could (and maybe did) beat up any bespectacled movie critic.
The great surprise of The Fighter, a new and entirely irresistible entry in the genre, is that it is far more like Rocky than Raging Bull. It was directed, and sensationally well, by David O. Russell, a filmmaker whose previous work (Flirting with Disaster, Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees) so drips with multifarious layers of irony that he would seem the last person on earth capable of making a head-on, populist, working-class fight picture. And yet that is exactly what The Fighter is, and why it’s so wonderful.
It’s actually the story of two real-life boxers from the hardscrabble section of Lowell, Mass.—Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and his older half-brother, Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale). The movie begins in 1993 with both of them on a false upswing. Micky is about to appear in his first televised bout. Dicky is being followed around by an HBO film crew more than a decade after he knocked Sugar Ray Leonard down. In short order, the good news turns out to be bad news. Micky ends up being brutalized in a fight against a boxer who has nearly 20 pounds on him. And Dicky, who serves as Micky’s trainer and coach, isn’t on the comeback trail, as he fantasizes; he’s actually being filmed for an HBO documentary on crack addiction.
Micky’s manager is his mother Alice, a hard-drinking, chain-smoking, leathery party girl in her 50s played by Melissa Leo in a performance as sharp and bracing as straight vinegar. Micky has had it beaten into him by Alice and Dicky that no one but family can be trusted, and so he is putty in their irresponsible hands.
As is often the case with a boxing picture, the man at the center of The Fighter is sweet and naïve and strangely passive—a necessary bit of fiction because, after all, what he does for a living is try to beat other men senseless, and to show him with an angry or nasty edge would make him frightening and difficult to identify with (as in Raging Bull). Wahlberg has given exactly this performance before, in the touchingly improbable real-life football movie Invincible; it was winning there and it’s winning here. But though he makes us root for Micky, he’s not all that interesting.
The dramatic interest and tension in The Fighter come from the people and places that surround him—the rickety house that doubles as a gym, his dumpy apartment next door to a prison, Alice and her overflowing ashtray and her emotional manipulations, the cruelty of the vicious baby mama with whom Micky has a daughter, the comedy provided by Micky’s seven hapless sisters.
Mostly, though, there is crazy, pathetic, narcissistic, addled, horrible, and yet agonizingly lovable Dicky. It’s one of the meatiest roles in recent American movies and it is going to win Christian Bale an Oscar. Bale is one of those performers easy to admire and difficult to love, because he’s so publicly full of ludicrous melodramatic torment about the demands of acting. Here, he manages for the first time since his pre-adolescent work nearly a quarter-century ago as the spoiled British kid trapped in a Japanese prison camp outside Shanghai in Empire of the Sun to make us care deeply about the character he’s playing.