Review: ‘The Fight’

Professional sports, national rivalries and geopolitical dynamics are intriguingly entwined in Barak Goodman's well-crafted docu about the legendary heavyweight bouts between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling. Somewhere between fest circuit tour and public television airdate, pic could flex muscles as contender in limited theatrical runs.

Professional sports, national rivalries and geopolitical dynamics are intriguingly entwined in “The Fight,” Barak Goodman’s compellingly well-crafted docu about the legendary heavyweight bouts between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling. Somewhere between its fest circuit tour and public television airdate, pic could flex some muscles as a B.O. contender in limited theatrical runs.

Partly based on a nonfiction book by Vanity Fair scribe David Margolick, who’s credited as a consulting producer, “The Fight” nimbly alternates between parallel tracks while following the boxers on their separate paths to Yankee Stadium, site of their two fateful encounters in the 1930s.

Louis, the son of Alabama sharecroppers, fights an uphill battle to cross boxing’s color line while quixotically pursuing the heavyweight crown. He’s coached by advisers to appear humble and harmless, lest he be compared to Jack Johnson, the only previous black champ, whose “uppity” attitude rankled the white powerbrokers who controlled the sport.

Even after he breaks through to the big time, Louis dutifully sustains his image as a Bible-reading, non-threatening “good Negro.” Still, many African-Americans proudly embrace “The Brown Bomber” as role model. As one old-timer recalls, Lewis represented “our nonviolent violent way of expressing ourselves.”

In Germany, the provincial-born Schmeling makes his way to Weimar Berlin just in time to be accepted as a kind of two-fisted mascot by the city’s avant-garde writers and artists. Even after the reportedly apolitical fighter allows himself to be co-opted by Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels as a symbol of Aryan supremacy, the fighter continues to sympathize with beleaguered Jewish acquaintances in Berlin cafe society.

On the other hand, it’s good to have friends in high places — especially when those friends hold absolute power — and Schmeling shrewdly refrains from any action that might impede his career trajectory.

Writer-director Goodman vividly conveys the sociopolitical forces at play in Germany and America throughout the ’30s, and effectively illuminates many of the bitter ironies and unlikely alliances that shaped the destinies of his subjects.

To establish himself in America as a heavyweight contender, Schmeling employs — and, apparently, befriends — New York-based Joe Jacobs, a feisty Jewish manager nicknamed “Yussel the Muscle.” Later, when U.S. Olympic officials threaten to boycott the 1936 Berlin Games, which Hitler intends as showcase for Aryan athleticism, Der Fuhrer personally importunes Schmeling to tell the officials that Nazis really aren’t all that nasty to Jews and political rivals. Schmeling is successful at making Hitler happy — but only until the decidedly non-Aryan Jesse Owens wins a fistful of gold medals for the United States.

(Pic often alludes to lingering questions about Schmeling’s true motives and political leanings, but also notes that he saved two Jewish youngsters, the children of cafe society friends, from the horrors of Kristalnacht.)

Schmeling wins his first fight with Louis in 1936, but Louis — thanks to the intercession of American boxing officials — is the one who gets a shot at the heavyweight title. By the time the fighters are re-matched for a 1938 bout, a slugfest that attracts the largest international radio audience in history, the Brown Bomber is the most widely celebrated black man in a segregated America.

The catch is, he must pummel the Aryan menace into submission — and, in doing so, strike a blow for U.S. pride — if he wants to maintain his first-class status in a country where he would otherwise be treated as a second-class citizen.

Goodman fashions a fascinating narrative from archival material, eyewitness accounts and interviews with friends and contemporaries of both boxers. German and American boxing historians also appear to offer insightful commentary and, occasionally, informed speculation. Potent mix of meticulously balanced elements is, quite simply, a knockout.

The Fight

Production

An American Experience presentation of a Social Media Prods. production in association with MDR/ARTE and BBC. Produced by Barak Goodman. Executive producer, Mark Samuels. Co-producer, John Maggio. Directed, written by Barak Goodman.

Crew

Camera (color, HD video), Edward Marritz, Thomas Hurwitz, Ciro Cappellari, Stephen McCarthy, Michael Shamus, Jon Shenk; editor, Lewis Erskine; music, Edward Bilous. Reviewed on videocassette, Houston, Jan. 11, 2004. (In Sundance Film Festival -- competing.) Running time: 88 MIN. Narrator: Courtney B. Vance.
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