The Fighter, dir. David O. Russell (2010)
The most impressive thing about The Fighter is its dedication to media reenactment. For the film’s boxing matches the filmmakers looked not only to acquire the actual cameras on which those matches were filmed, they acquired the original HBO crews to recreate, shot for shot, Micky Ward’s fights. From my description, you might think that what emerges is something annoying in its quest for authenticity. Yet the performances—from Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Melissa Leo, and Amy Adams—are so strong in their own right that they maintain aesthetic reenactments while steering clear of cheap imitation.
Watching the video reenactments of Ward’s fights is totally satisfying, from the weird horizontal flaring around the edges to Micky’s own shy variant on the famous rope-a-dope strategy. And because of the character’s own frustrations, I can’t express how badly I wanted him to come out, punches flying, and sweep the top. Though he wins, the film doesn’t really let him do it in style—unless that style so understated as to be rendered invisible. The moment of triumphant expiation I desired came without a full sense of triumph or expiation, which, like Wahlberg’s own muted performance, is much harder than it looks.
It’s still strange to watch a 90s period piece, mostly because the 90s weren’t really that long ago but they feel forever ago. The Fighter places the story of Micky Ward (Whalberg) and his brother, Dick Eklund (Bale), an already fallen-from-grace boxer who relives his famous fights in the haze of crack addiction, firmly in the dilapidated 90s (when everything really was ugly). The boys’ mother (Leo) is a money-hungry manager who probably loves Dicky more than Micky. The film missteps by not bringing her relationship with Micky into its own; instead, it stands as a corollary to the Micky-Dicky saga. Leo, a powerful actress, can’t be held back: when she’s not fully explored, the audience knows what they’re missing.
Whalberg gives us a memorable portrait of a boxer unable to tap into his inner rage; Ward never really speaks up, never really lets loose (even when he wins the title). It is this tension that drives the film. Holding everything back is as bold a performance as Bale’s relaxed in-control scene-stealing. Even his love affair with the tempting barwoman (Adams) reveals more about Ward’s inability to access his own inner passion than anything else. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that Ward wouldn’t have been able to go anywhere without the antagonism provided by his family and his environment. One gets the feeling that, had he been able to relax in the ring, he wouldn’t have been able to fight at all.
What the film shows, too—without erring too far on the side of a heavy-handed lament—is the degree to which these forgotten (to me at least) brothers and their family lived the lives of local celebrities—and what it means to hold that strange moniker. Local celebrity in Lowell means a harem of sisters who ran into the ugly tree (people watch as they get in a fight with your new girlfriend), always watching the length of your mother’s skirt and the height of her heels, getting your hand broken by the cops. Dick Eklund is even the subject of an HBO documentary about crack addiction—which everybody sees, though it doesn’t matter because everybody’s already seen the family’s drama firsthand. The drama of The Fighter—which pushes it closer to Raging Bull than Rocky—is the drama of succeeding when everybody’s looking, and what it’s like to have everybody looking in the first place.