Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Fighter -- overcoming family, redeeming family

Director: David Russell, 2010. (R) 

Some will say The Fighter is this generation's Rocky. Over thirty years ago John G. Avildsen's rags-to-riches boxing movie propelled Sylvester Stallone into stardom while winning the Best Picture Oscar, and remains one of only three boxing movies to win this coveted trophy (On the Waterfront won in 1954 and Million Dollar Baby won in 2004). The blue-collar working-class context in The Fighter certainly encourages this comparison with Rocky. But, don't be confused. This film is tighter, grittier and all-around better than the earlier Academy Award winner. And it's based on a true story, to boot.

The film centers on two men, both fighters. Mark Wahlberg is Micky Ward, the fighter of the movie's title, and Christian Bale is his half-brother and trainer, Dicky Eklund. Their mother, Alice (Melissa Leo, Frozen River), acts as Micky's fight manager. She runs the ring and rules the roost, where seven sisters gather like a gaggle of geese. Dad, George (Jack McGee), is isolated as the lone male in the house.

Dicky's claim to fame is his former fight against Sugar Ray Leonard when he knocked the champ down but still lost. For that feat he earned the nickname "The Pride of Lowell," the working class neighborhood of Boston where they live. Roaming the streets followed by a two-man TV crew shooting a documentary, the outgoing Dicky knows everyone and they all love him. In contrast, Micky is a quiet and shy man, working and fighting (and mostly losing) to eke out a meager living. When Alice and Dicky persuade him to accept a fight against a much bigger boxer, it is clear they care less for his career and more for the cash.

This highlights one of the topics here. Alice is focused on Dicky not Micky. Dicky is the apple of her eye, and it is clear to everyone but her. Like Joseph in the Old Testament (Gen. 37), this is parental favoritism that impacts the siblings. We can learn from this: as parents we should not play favorites, although this does not mean we must treat our children identically. It simply means we don't love one more than another. God shows no favoritism (Rom. 2:11) and we must not either.

Alice's partiality blinds her to Dicky's faults. A washed out boxer, he is a crack addict, prone to trouble.  But she sees only the glory days of his fighting career. She is living in the past, fooling herself in the present, refusing to face up to the truth. Others can see what is happening, as Dicky avoids his mom, jumping out of windows, climbing fences to avoid shattering her carefully constructed image.

Don't we act like Alice at times? If we have had some earlier victories yet our present is fading away, we may try to live in our past. But doing this sacrifices our present, leaving us burnt-out husks, much as Dicky was. Rather, we should do what the apostle Paul said, "one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 3:13-14).

Moreover, we must avoid the self-delusion that will keep us imprisoned in a captivity of our own making. Instead, we must embrace the truth in all areas of our life. By opening ourselves up to the spotlight of God's Word, listening to his Holy Spirit, and inviting godly friends and counselors into our corner, we can face the truth and allow it to knock-out the lies we may have told ourselves.

It is only when Micky summons the courage to ask Charlene (Amy Adams, Julie and Julia), the local barmaid, out on a dinner-and-movie date, that he begins to face the truth. Charlene can see what is happening to him in his family and she stands up for him. But the truth often comes at a price. Here it is a divisive force that polarises.

As well as being nominated for best film of 2010, a nomination it deserves but will lose to The King's Speech or The Social Network, The Fighter showcases stellar acting. Christian Bale has already won the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor for his role. He is almost unrecognizable here, playing a man at the bottom thinking he is still at the top. Mark Wahlberg is strong and deserves his nomination in the Best Actor role, but is not quite good enough to win the trophy. Surprising for a boxing movie, the two female leads are poweful characters in their own right and are played with corresponding power by the two actresses. Both are nominated, and it is likely Melissa Leo will take home an Oscar to match her Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress. Adams, like Wahlberg, will go home empty-handed but can be proud of her performance.

Like Rocky and other similar sports films, Micky has to hit rock bottom before he can arise to make a comeback. When Charlene points out that Dicky is often late to train him and Alice is not getting him fights to improve his career, she encourages him to find a new path, a new trainer, a new manager.

Unlike other boxing movies, the fights are kept to a minimum, and the best ones appear in the final act. Instead, the focus is on the characters and the family drama. Boxing offers Micky a means of redemption for him, his family and his community. And it is through boxing that he is able to bring his family back around him.

We all need redemption. We have broken families, damaged relationships, wasted lives, painful hurts. We need to be rescued, delivered. Boxing may not be our redemptive mechanism, but we stand waiting nevertheless. God offers us redemption through Jesus (Eph. 1:7). He has rescued us from the damage we have caused ourselves. When we come to acknowledge and follow Christ, he brings us into his new kingdom (Col. 1:13). And he offers us opportunity to receive and give forgiveness (Lk. 3:3; 11:4). In this way, through grace we can experience restoration and victory.

The Fighter is not a family-friendly film, despite its message of family solidarity. It is enfused with cursing, just as we would expect from a film based on such a working-class context. It puts drugs in the center of the plot, though it underscores the cost of drug addiction on family and friends. Yet it feels real, and the characters are authentic in the way they talk and act. When it comes to the climactic fight, I found myself on the edge of my seat, dodging and weaving with Micky, even though I knew the outcome. David Russell has given us the story of two fighters that punches us emotionally for two hours but leaves us basking in its heart-felt victory.

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

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