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Blue Collar Blues or Rehab with Dr. Drew? David O. Russell’s The Fighter

As a late-in-life fight fan who has even sparred in the ring a bit with my intimidating but protective heavyweight coach, I was predisposed to like The Fighter. I’d also recently re-watched David O. Russell’s Three Kings, an underrated, politically astute satire about fear, the army, and Desert Storm which the director called “the insanity of consumer culture crashing into contemporary warfare.” The film was tailored around the stories of actual soldiers and military technical advisors who had to watch the slaughter of Iraqi civilians after the ceasefire. The most memorable line from the film occurs when George Clooney’s character tries to teach a panicked soldier how to go in shooting: “This is how it works; you do the things you’re scared of. The courage comes after.” No one is a more convincing existentialist philosopher than George Clooney. I’d follow him into war, aping his bitter, wry expression, and the sentiment is more persuasive than the forced optimism of “Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder!”

Boxer Micky Ward, played by Mark Wahlberg in The Fighter, might have benefited from Clooney’s advice, but then, every boxer practices that methodology. How else would anyone ever agree to jump into a ring and be pounded? Wahlberg has the same endearing, wide-eyed stare in both films, lips slightly parted, and that damn loving compassionate nature ready to burst forth, as he looks off into his uncertain future. He’s even an earnest kisser (when he and barmaid Amy Adams clinch).

Russell admirably holds back from over-romanticizing the true story of junior welterweight Micky Ward, a contender singing the blue-collar blues from Lowell, Mass., who is best known for his victory over Arturo Gatti. The Fighter doesn’t reward you with that triumph; instead it constructs what might be a great episode of A&E’s Intervention, with the backstory to that victory. Christian Bale’s portrayal of Micky’s toxic brother Dicky is stunning. He’s the crackhead who keeps screwing up Micky’s career. Languishing in the glory memories of his own aborted boxing career, he keeps the family on the edge of its collective seat as he fails to show up, gets arrested, goes to jail, and puts his brother at risk when Micky, trying to rescue Dicky from angry cops (“He’s a boxer! Break his hand!”). The scene of Micky’s hand being broken echoes the ending of The Set-Up, Robert Wise’s 1949 boxing noir drama in which Robert Ryan’s hand is broken by the mob when he refuses to take a fall in the ring. Ryan’s injury is a punishment which ends his career. Wahlberg’s hand heals while his brother is in jail.

The family of an addict can’t win – love him, don’t love him, practice tough love, don’t enable, but never give up loving him. Everyone’s torn apart, screaming through their tears, while the steely mother in this drama, played by Melissa Leo, stomps around on cheap heels and tries to keep the family together. The problem is, she’s enmeshed with Dicky. This movie mom, and the one played by Barbara Hershey in Black Swan are monstrous and powerful figures, reminiscent of classic Joan Crawford roles. (Come to think of it, isn’t there a re-make of Mildred Pierce coming out? Trend?) To mobilize his own hero’s journey, Micky must turn away from Mom’s pleading face and make his own decisions, an act harder than taking a physical punch. To disappoint an insatiable mother like her and a goofy but toxic brother like Dicky is to feel your guts twisting inside. The story of trying to do something better with one’s life is often the story of being haunted by someone you wanted to save. Oh, and did I mention the seven volatile sisters? There are times when The Fighter is like a Grimm’s fairytale.

Sometimes you have to know you can go before you can stay. As soon as Micky claims his own identity (“I’m done lying for you! This is my shot!”), it’s possible for everyone to mobilize around him. Even Dicky is back in his corner, and the two brothers sing their way into the ring, twin fighters out of the American working class. Bales looks feral, conniving, Wahlberg innocent, eager. In the end, they need each other (“You complete me?”)

Joyce Carol Oates, in her seminal book On Boxing, famously wrote that boxing wasn’t a metaphor; it was “the thing itself.” As much as I admire the estimable Oates, I disagree. Boxing is both the thing itself and a metaphor. Boxing is the physical embodiment of the dilemma of life, and how it throws you unexpected blows. How you respond to those blows is everything. You must protect yourself and keep your composure. Wahlberg/Ward shouts from the ring: “Never give up in this game. You never know what can happen.” Thumbs up (and wrapped)! – for The Fighter.

Binnie Klein is the author of Blows to the Head: How Boxing Changed My Mind (SUNY Press, 2010). She is a psychotherapist in New Haven, CT, and the host of a weekly music and interview show on WPKN.  She is also a Consulting Producer for Star in the Ring, a documentary-in-the-making about the history of Jewish boxers.

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