“They’re going to make a movie about me, you know.”
We were about ten minutes into our drive from my hotel out to the location for the film “The Invention Of Lying,” and I was talking to the driver, a local Teamster who had been sent to pick me up. One of the things I learned early on when traveling to film sets is that drivers often have the best stories about what’s going on, and they’re almost always willing to chat. In this case, the driver was telling me about the town of Lowell where I was staying, and as he told me about the city, he started telling me a bit about his brother, a local legend who had been a professional fighter. I asked him about his background working on movies, and he said he was just doing it for the first time. I asked what he did instead of driving. “I did a little bit of fighting as well.” I asked him some more questions about his boxing history, and that’s when he finally broke down and told me they were making a film about him. “About me and my brother.”
And now, finally, that film is done, and my driver that morning, who introduced himself as Micky Ward, has been immortalized by Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, and David O. Russell.
It’s safe to say that I am a David O. Russell fan. I’ve been onboard since the beginning. Well, okay, since “Spanking The Monkey,” but I remember the impact of that one in the theater, the way it announced Russell as a guy who can navigate some really tricky tightropes of tone. When “Flirting With Disaster” came out in 1996, I went nuts for it. It felt like Russell made a comedy that absolutely summed up that moment, but that wasn’t “about” the 1990s in an overt way. I’m a firm believer that 1999 was the best year I wrote about while working at Ain’t It Cool, and one of the films I loved most that year was “Three Kings.”
And then there’s the film that stopped him cold. “I Heart Huckabees.” And I unapologetically love that movie, too. I think it’s a big shaggy daffy fascinating mess, and I love it. Mark Wahlberg’s work in that film is joyous and beautiful, and he’s earnest and interesting in “Three Kings.” He’s got a great creative relationship with Russell, and so it seems right that six years after “Huckabees,” Russell is finally back on the bigscreen with “The Fighter.” This is a film that Wahlberg has been trying to get made for a while, and I’m glad that it came together in this particular way, because I think Russell needed to make this movie, and not just because he finds the story uplifting, either. It’s good to see something from him that is life-affirming and simple and direct, because a movie like this, a movie that delivers in as many ways as this one does, can erase a whole lot of dumb YouTube rants from an audience’s memory.
One of the things I worry about as a parent of two young boys is how I’m going to give them both the same amount of love and support while being sure to treat the two of them as individuals, making sure that I respond to the specific needs of each of them. When you have kids, you dream for them. There’s this primal need to see them happy, to see them satisfied. I have no idea yet what either of my kids will be interested in once they’re old enough to start working, and I have no idea what skills or passions they’ll have. But i hope that I am able to set an example for the both of them, and more than that, I hope that I am able to steer them in a way that supports them without smothering them. And more than anything, I hope that as they move through this life, my sons remain close, and that they treat each other as allies, as brothers, and as best friends. I know I can’t make that happen, but there is a part of me that wishes I’d had a brother. It is an experience I envy them, growing up with this teammate, a lifelong partner-in-crime.
“The Fighter” could be viewed as the story of Micky Ward, a welterweight boxer from Lowell, MA, and in some ways, the film is a conventional sports story. But the thing that really makes the film special and that makes it work is the relationship between Micky and his older brother, Dicky Eklund. Eklund is older than Micky, and when Eklund was fighting professionally, he had his very own “Rocky” moment in the ring with Sugar Ray Leonard. He didn’t win. He didn’t beat him. But he stayed in the ring with him, and in one glorious, crazy moment, he knocked Sugar Ray down. That one moment is the pinnacle of Dicky’s existence, and he talks about it all day every day. Micky loves his brother and idolizes him and wants to be like him, and he depends on Dicky as a trainer, but he is also well aware of the truth that their mother Alice (Melissa Leo) doesn’t want to acknowledge: Dicky is a crackhead.
The first half of the movie makes use of a documentary crew that is following Dicky around, a device that lets the characters directly address the camera at times, and that informs their behavior even when they’re not talking directly into it. They all tell themselves that HBO wants to make this movie about Dicky because they believe he’s going to make a comeback in the ring. The truth is much sadder, and much of the movie deals with the way this family has to stop denying that “The Pride Of Lowell” has become a skeletal addict, barely able to tear himself away from his crackpipe long enough for a sparring session with his brother. It’s awful, too, because Bale shows you exactly how charming and impressive Dicky can be, and how he was able to coast for so long on his ragged charm. He also shows you how complete the heartbreak must have been for those around Dicky. It’s a charismatic performance, one of the loosest and, yes, funniest things Bale has ever done. Wahlberg is right in his comfort zone with his character, and he plays Micky as this slightly bruised guy who wants to do right by his family but who wants his own moment in the sun as well. He wants to be the fighter that his brother was, but he can’t as long as he let Dicky and Alice run his career.
Amy Adams strips away all the polish and glamour of the roles that have made her a movie star in order to play Charlene, the local bartender who Micky falls for, and she’s really affecting in the movie. I love that Adams does not look like a girl who spends all day every day in a gym. I love that she plays much of the movie with no make-up, shot so close that every flaw and blemish in her skin is apparent. And I love that even with every flaw not only magnified, but front and center as a character point, Adams still comes across as beautiful and strong and worth Micky’s time and affection. She pushes him, and with her, Micky begins to make choices that could tear his family up even as they push him ahead in his career.
The script by Scott Silver and Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson won’t shock you with any major narrative surprises, but it lays things out in a way that feels real and authentic, and they have a real understanding of communities like Lowell that grounds the film. Russell’s filmmaking has never been more meat-and-potatoes, and for the most part, it benefits him. The only thing I wasn’t 100% sold on was the actual boxing in the film. Because Russell wants to be crystal clear in the choreography so the audience understands the dynamics of the fight, there’s a rehearsed precision to some of it that doesn’t ring true. It’s not a big thing, and I don’t think it derails the movie, but it is ironic that the one element of a movie called “The Fighter” that doesn’t excel is the fighting. Russell seems to be after the narrative of the fight more than the authentic experience of it, and I can’t fault the limber photography of Hoyte van Hoytema, working in a much warmer mode here than he did in “Let The Right One In,” or the expressive editing by Pam Martin. Russell’s collaborators all do right by him in this film.
I’m not from Lowell, so I’m not going to presume to say “they got it right,” but this film has a definite sense of time and place, and I love the details of Lowell in the film. I love all of Wahlberg’s sisters in the movie, who don’t look like actors at all, and there’s a scene where they all pile in a car to go kick someone’s ass that is both terrifying and hilarious. There’s a real sense of community here, and considering the place that Dicky Eklund and Micky Ward hold in Lowell, it’s little wonder everyone pitched into help get this story onscreen. Last night, before the screening, Mark Wahlberg talked about how long he’d been working to get this film made, and the great relief of the evening is that all of that effort was worth it. “The Fighter” may not reinvent the sports biography, but it absolutely embodies all that is good about the genre. It is a wonderful movie, commercial and approachable but built with real integrity, and I hope audiences embrace it this holiday season.
“The Fighter” opens December 10, 2010.