David O. Russell´s The Fighter, based on the true story of unlikely welterweight champion “Irish” Micky Ward, instantly ranks itself as one of the best boxing movies ever made, right up there with Rocky and Raging Bull. But the film is about a lot more than boxing: as a portrait of white trash struggle in Lowell, Massachusetts, and particularly of Ward´s half-brother, Dicky Eklund, a former fighter struggling with drug addiction, the film packs a knockout punch.
Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) is an Irish-American welterweight living Lowell, Mass., managed by his mother (Melissa Leo) and trained by his half-brother Eklund (Christian Bale), a former boxer and “The Pride of Lowell”, who gained fame for knocking out Sugar Ray Leonard (in a fight he eventually lost). At the start of the film, Micky is about to fight in Atlantic City when his competitor drops out; tasked with fighting an oversized substitution boxer or forfeiting the purse, Micky enters the ring and is pulverized.
Dissatisfied with his career, and the handling by his mother and brother, Micky retreats into working class life in Lowell and considers giving up boxing. But new girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams) urges him to contact a manager who offers some more guidance; he has one condition – Dicky, a negative influence, cannot be involved. While attempting to resolve the conflict as peacefully as possible, Micky is forced to decide between his family and his future.
Parallel to Micky´s story is the story of Dicky; a drug addict who rarely shows up to training on time, family members find themselves chasing him out of the local crack house, where he slips out the back window. Dicky has a camera crew following him around at most times; he claims they´re documenting his return to the ring, but in they´re actually documenting how far he has fallen, and his continued descent.
If The Fighter often feels incredibly real, it´s because it is: the story of Micky Ward is the kind of Rocky-esque tale that has to be real, because otherwise it would seem too scripted. Beyond that, director Russell nails the working class feel of Lowell, and the actors nail these people; compare to the actual HBO doc that was trailing Eklund, High on Crack Street: Lost Lives in Lowell, produced as part of the America Undercover series.
The performances here, as far away from Hollywood glam as you can get, often make the film. Wahlberg is extraordinarily solid: while his familiar screen persona isn´t likely to win awards, he gives us a real rooting interest. Leo and Adams, both nominated for Best Supporting Actress at this year´s Academy Awards, offer commanding performances (Leo is likely to win the prize). But it´s Bale, as the drug-addled but optimistic brother, who makes the greatest impression: frequently taking method acting to the extreme, he disappears so fully into the role of Dicky Eklund that he often appears unrecognizable (physically, only his death-defying work in The Machinist took him further). A Best Supporting Actor Oscar should be his.
The story of Ward and Eklund is the kind of real-life drama that was destined for the screen; indeed, pre-production on The Fighter seemed to begin as soon as Ward fought Shea Neary in 2000 (the finished film doesn’t even get to Ward’s trio of epic bouts against Arturo Gatti). Wahlberg had been in training for his role since 2005, and at various points in pre-production Brad Pitt and Matt Damon were attached to play Eklund. But it´s impossible to imagine anyone other than Bale in the role.
Director Russell gained some heat in the 90s with the quirky indies Spanking the Monkey and Flirting with Disaster, then delivered in a big way with the dark Gulf War comedy Three Kings; in 2004, he lost that heat with I Heart Huckabees (which I, nevertheless, found brilliant), particularly due to a video leaked on the internet featuring him in shouting matches with the cast. After six years and no realized projects, Russell has displayed a sure-handed touch for real-life drama along with an eye and ear for location and character in The Fighter, and re-established himself as an A-list director.
There´s a lot of genuine pleasantness in Roger Michell´s Morning Glory: cheerful performances, bright smiles, airy optimism, and a light, breezy tone. It´s nice, sometimes, to see a film where the stakes are low and the sugary surface can wash over you. But this wasn´t quite the movie I wanted to see: the sugar takes over, and the subject, which is prime for dissection, heavy satire, or even irreverent humor, is only given a cursory examination.
Through no fault of its own, this film – a light comedy centered on the inner workings of a network morning news show akin to Good Morning, America – has been and will be endlessly compared to Sidney Lumet´s Network and James L. Brooks´ Broadcast News, the two indisputable classics in the TV news genre. No one seems to remember half-decent fare like Switching Channels, and I fear a similar fate awaits Morning Glory.
If Network and Broadcast News are the respectable, significant Edward R. Murrow programs, then Morning Glory is the cutesy morning news show. Which it might as well be: the movie and its heroine Becky Fuller (Rachel McAdams), profess their love for the morning news throughout. Becky has just been fired from her job as morning news producer at a small New Jersey station; her mother (Patti D’Arbanville) attempts to console her, unable to fully comprehend Becky´s ambition for (so strangely specifically) the morning news. We´re in the same position as the mother. Is this really something people aspire to? Should it be encouraged?
But Becky gets a call from IBS honcho Jerry Barnes (Jeff Goldblum); IBS is a fictional fourth major network, and Daybreak is their failing morning news show, in fourth place in the ratings behind Today and Good Morning, America. Becky somehow wins a producing job on Daybreak, a show headlined by always-smiling anchor Colleen Peck (Diane Keaton); her first order of business is to get rid of Colleen´s creepy co-anchor, and replace him with grizzled, Dan Rather-esque nightly news veteran Mike Pomeroy (Harrison Ford).
From the moment he hits the screen, Ford walks away with the movie; he´s a growling bulldog as Pomeroy, always ready to pounce, every acid-tongued remark perfectly phrased and whispered, barely audibly, just under his breath. Most importantly, his character finally gives Morning Glory a rooting interest: here´s a respectable reporter and anchor who has covered important events the world over, forced to participate in the farce that is this morning “news” program.
Unfortunately, while the script by Aline Brosh McKenna (27 Dresses, The Devil Wears Prada) acknowledges Pomeroy´s plight, it ultimately sides with Becky; the dumbing-down of our news and our culture, you see, is a good thing. This is the film´s one big failing: by drudging up the ‘news vs. entertainment´ angle, we expect a debate (serious, ironic, irreverent – something) that never takes place, the resolution instead dictated generic formula. Apparently, TV has turned us all into idiots, as Paddy Chayefsky predicted in Network; were no longer expected to confront complex issues, but shut up and smile.
Director Michell had previously directed complex, challenging work like Enduring Love, Venus, The Mother, and the underrated Sam Jackson-Ben Affleck thriller Changing Lanes; before those films, he also helmed the Julia Roberts-Hugh Grant rom-com Notting Hill. This film polished and clean, but the antithesis of challenging work – it´s easy, generic, and conventional, even more so than Notting Hill.
For the undemanding viewer, Morning Glory is light and fun: Ford is terrific, in his best role in at least a decade, and Keaton offers a glimpse of a similar resurgence – as Pomeroy´s bubbly co-anchor, she strikes the satiric perfect chord, and is as good as I can remember her in the last two decades. If you´re looking for anything more serious, however, look elsewhere.
Also opening: Ostrov svaté Heleny (St. Helen’s Island), a musical from director Vlastimil Šimůnek starring Laďa Kerndl, Tatiana Vilhelmová, Zuzana Slavíková, Bolek Polívka, Pavel Bobek. Screening in Czech.