The Fighter might more accurately have been titled The Fighter and His Family: it’s a boisterous, brilliantly orchestrated ensemble piece at the paradoxically near-still center of which is an Irish-American boxer (Mark Wahlberg), whose once-promising career, like his grim hometown, Lowell, Massachusetts, is on what appears to be an inevitable downward spiral. Just nominated for seven Academy Awards—including best picture and Christian Bale as best supporting actor, the current favorite in that category—the film is based on the life and career of former junior welterweight champion Micky Ward,* most famous for his three brutally hard-fought bouts with Arturo Gatti in 2002–2003. It is also a group portrait of working-class Irish-Americans in a blighted, postindustrial landscape: the brawling, clannish, emotionally combustible Ward-Eklund family for whom Micky is the great hope and from whom, if he wants to survive, let alone prevail as a boxer of ambition, he must separate himself.
In a sequence of sharply realized scenes, not unlike the rounds of a boxing match, The Fighter pits the Ward-Eklund matriarch Alice (Melissa Leo) and her favored son, ex-boxer Dicky (Christian Bale), the half-brother of Micky, against Micky and his girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams). The film traces a highly contentious, often darkly funny tug-of-war for Micky’s soul, which is to say his career. Like Micky, the viewer is made to experience the almost literally suffocating and coercive “love” of a family for its own—the heroic, if desperate, effort that an essentially nonrebellious son like Micky must make simply to be allowed to be an adult; though he’s at least thirty years old, divorced, with a young daughter from whom he’s separated, and, in his own words, he’s “not getting any younger.” (In professional boxing, most boxers are burned out by thirty and at risk of serious injury.)
Dramatizing the actual Micky Ward’s life, but only to a degree, The Fighter follows the archetypal pattern of the generic boxing film—see Cinderella Man (2005) as a recent example, as well as the cruder, more slickly produced Rocky films—in its modestly uplifting ending. The subjects of these films are not boxers of the quality of the young, dazzling Mike Tyson or the legendary Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Robinson, or Joe Louis but journeyman fighters who’ve managed through sheer effort to win just a little more often than they’ve lost. Poor Micky isn’t even, by nature, aggressive; he’s far from the “raging bull” counterpuncher Jake LaMotta of Martin Scorsese’s film, so desperate in his ring stratagems that even his victories have an air of the haphazard and the tentative.
By default, since he’s losing a crucial fight with the British boxer Shea Neary, Micky falls back upon the notorious strategy that brought Ali victory against George Foreman in the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire: the…
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