The Weinstein Company and Relativity Media
Directed by David O. Russell
Nothing moves us more than the triumph of human will. Based on a real life story, The Fighter essays the lives of brothers struggling against adverse tides of personal circumstance and the perilous world of boxing success. Micky Ward’s promise as a boxer is threatened by the looming shadow of his brother’s short lived fame and his crippling crack addiction. Both hail from Lowell, Massachusetts, a family of seven sisters and a mother who manages their boxing careers. The family thrives on dysfunction – drinks, brawls and dreams make them. Dicky, Micky’s brother is a town legend having knocked out Sugar Ray Leonard in a long-ago televised fight. In the film’s present, we witness him floating in and out of the illusory world brought on by crack. The movie begins with the brothers being filmed, their journey to what they both can claim as ‘comebacks’. Dicky’s life is chronicled by HBO, in what he imagines as a resurrection of his career as a boxer. We are so inclined to believe, especially as we realize that he is his brother’s chief boxing trainer. Except he holes up in a crack house and misses the trainings with disappointing frequency. Micky loses the fight because of a sixty-five pound mismatch. With boxing capitalizing on youth and the regimen and rigor of training, the odds were against him. We are pained to see how talent is wasted by filial ties and poverty. Micky was offered to train in Las Vegas but was staunchly refused by family until he met Charlene, a bar waitress. She may have been what he needed, firmly showing him what his family can’t and sharing with him her determination to overcome the odds. Beyond her foul words is a mind bent to succeed. A college drop-out, she has long realized the chances she lost and felt a stirring resolve to help Micky salvage his chances at success.
There is nothing new here but the film speaks of the human condition with sharp alacrity and moving honesty. We are let in on individual struggles yet our eyes are opened to its communal dimension and fate. We know brothers Dicky and Micky (almost ridiculously rhyming names) belong to a neighborhood where everything is expected to waste. Burdened by an almost scheming mother and a brood that thrives on their earnings as boxers, they have little hope of making their own lives. It turns out the HBO film where Dicky thought he starred in was a documentary on crack addiction. This he saw in jail where he learned to be sober. Severed from sibling competition and supported by Charlene, Micky finally decided to take on training and fights not arranged by his mother. He succeeds few and when prospects seemed to present themselves to him, he had to make the difficult decision to leave out Dicky from his camp. This conflict resolves itself with Dicky’s sobered up humility and the acceptance. Micky went on to win a title bout and we see resolution of filial conflict and sibling rivalry. Christian Bale’s riveting performance is central to The Fighter, as was Melissa Leo’s portrayal of a conflicted mother.
It is a fitting coincidence that I chanced upon reruns of Jessica Soho’s documentaries, one on stars both shining and faded in the world of Philippine professional and amateur boxing. It was disheartening to learn of a world champion whose winnings back in 1957 was a staggering eighty-thousand dollars but who now lives in impoverished shambles with his wife. Or the once-famed Rolando Navarette from General Santos City – interviewed bare-chested, we sense desperation from this once-millionaire champion who resorted to asking for pittance and meals from neighbors. He admitted with self-defeat that temper and women were the roots of his downfall and bankruptcy. He practices in the same gym as then emerging and now world boxing star Pacquiao, a futile attempt to summon his glory days. These are stories fuelled by struggles with poverty and adversity, of sheer resolve against life’s sometimes merciless blows. For fighters within the ring, marked by ropes and posts or life’s wider orbit, similar lessons prevail – that fame and fortune are short-lived.
Boxing is not my cup of tea, but I have to own up to the fact that it is more than brawn; it is also the battle of wit and will inside the confines of a ring. This is why boxer’s lives never fail to amaze us. Somehow, we instinctively grasp that the blows given are drawn from life and that success can be made or unraveled in the painful stretches of a ten- or a twelve-round bout. Indeed, it is the human face of struggle that is the charisma of boxing; more than the calculus of slugging and evading blows, ‘fancy’ footwork, or sophisticated moves. It is the enigma of survival and the incalculable depths of heart and will that moves us with sober hope.