Last week, my friend Bradford Winters wrote admiringly about Christian Bale and his impressive performance in The Fighter.
I’m glad he did. Last year, an angry outburst made Bale a target for pop culture scorn. For those who have admired Bale’s formidable talents—from his unforgettable breakthrough in Empire of the Sun, to his fearsome serial killer in American Psycho, to his kindhearted Christian tobacco farmer in The New World—it was painful to see such underrated work overshadowed by the embarrassing meltdown.
I’m grateful for Brad’s reminder that there are things to appreciate in The Fighter. But David O. Russell’s movie aggravated me. And the more I reflect on it, the more it troubles me.
First, I’ll point out what I did admire.
For once, a boxing movie refrained from demonizing fighters who challenged the hero. Nobody pretended that these fights were about good versus evil.
The story’s turning point moved me. We saw an arrogant character put his ego aside in order to “reach across the table” and work together with someone whose resentment he had encouraged. With one fumbling act of reconciliation, he encouraged all of us to work for the greater good of an American dream. That seems like a timely political parable.
I was also pleased that the film’s main character, Micky Ward, was so unlike the typical egomaniacal boxers that drive most boxing movies. His soft-spoken, amiable personality reminded me of, well...Mark Wahlberg. A few years ago, during a bizarre interview with David O. Russell and Mark Wahlberg, I found the actor to be humble, gracious, and eager to give glory to Jesus Christ for helping him get his life together.
But when I read John Podheretz’s rave review in The Weekly Standard, I choked. It begins, “If you told me you didn’t like movies about boxing, I’d have to answer that you didn’t really like movies.”
Well, John, that’s a very silly thing to say. I love movies. But I also happen to love human beings. Thus, I’m severely allergic to boxing.
I cringe at the sport’s objective. Each fighter is seeking to pulverize his opponent, to make him momentarily incapable of functioning or responding by delivering physical abuse that will result, to some degree, in permanent damage.
Not many boxers die from boxing. But The American Association of Neurological Surgeons estimates that 90% of them have brain injuries by the time they retire. Damaged brain tissue doesn’t heal.
Consider other common effects: slurred speech, blackouts (“chronic traumatic encephalopathy”). Fighters suffer higher rates of depression and suicide.
I have yet to hear a convincing defense of such entertainment.
Enough about the fighters. I also cringe at what such a spectacle encourages in its audience. Some exceptional boxing fans may stand up with a noble defense of it, but I am dispirited by the culture that festers around such fights.
Boxing rings are like casinos—no matter how much you defend the integrity of the games played inside, you cannot deny that such activities have a gravity that draws in a storm of misbehaviors, from reckless spending to the objectification of women. I know this is harsh, but I tend to see boxing fans as people who need an outlet for their frustrations. Feeling impotent, oppressed, and afraid, they find vicarious thrills as their fighter of choice pummels the opponent, who becomes a scapegoat, a symbol of anything they want to knock down.
Show me a boxing movie that is honest enough to spoil our appetite for such stuff, and maybe I’ll find a boxing movie to love.
How often do we hear concerned Christians and conscientious citizens bemoaning the Hollywood’s corrosive influence on cultural values? How many of those same people shelve those concerns when they watch sports on the weekends?
If I really wanted to make enemies, I’d talk about how recent essays on football, like Malcolm Gladwell’s in The New Yorker, have made me feel ashamed about enjoying those games so much. Where does conscience come into play for snarling offensive linemen?
So, no, I didn’t enjoy my matinee of The Fighter. While the crowd cheered, I didn’t want Micky to win the fight. I wanted somebody more discerning than his sexy bartending girlfriend to come along and rescue him from his family’s ignorance.
And he wasn’t the only one I wanted to rescue.
A man walked into the matinee ten minutes late, bringing two daughters. I’m guessing they were five and eight years old. They sat next to me. As he quietly narrated the R-rated events to them, the little one started crying. He hugged her, but never once looked toward the door. The older girl sat wide-eyed as The Fighter’s two brothers fought back against the cops during their entirely justifiable arrest.
The credits rolled. The father beamed with pleasure over the triumphant conclusion. “Daddy?” asked the incredulous eight-year-old. “That man who beat up the cops...was he the hero?”
“Yes,” said her father approvingly. “Yes, he was, sweetie.”