Sunday, August 26, 2007

A critic busts a movie for fudging the facts

Summary: "Resurrecting the Champ" provides a platform for discussing just how much a critic should reveal about a movie, and raises interesting questions about the uneasy relationship between fact and drama.

Nothing seems to annoy readers more than a reviewer who gives away major plot twists, and, for the most part, readers are right to take offense when they feel their pleasures have been spoiled. But some movies are difficult to write about without revealing a crucial turn of plot. I thought about this while reading Jack Matthews' review of "Resurrecting the Champ" in Friday's New York Daily News. Matthews wrote directly about something most reviewers didn't bother to point out: "Resurrecting the Champ," which is loosely based on a real story, does some damage to the truth.

From here on, you'll find spoilers, and, of course, spoilers also can be found in Matthews' review. If you'd rather see the movie before reading further, by all means stop now. Be advised, though, we're not talking "The Crying Game" here, and you may not be all that surprised even if you don't know where the movie's headed. Personally, I've never felt that knowing about a movie in advance ruins the viewing experience, particularly if the movie is any good. I don't know how many times I've seen "Psycho," and it still never fails to rattle me.

But back to the point...

In "Resurrecting the Champ," Josh Hartnett plays a sportswriter for the fictional Denver Times. During the course of covering the boxing beat, Hartnett's Erik stumbles on what he believes to be a major story. A former contending middleweight -- Battlin' Bob Satterfield (Samuel L. Jackson) -- is living homeless on the streets of Denver. The catch that ultimately gives the movie its spin: The ex-fighter isn't "Battlin' Bob," but one of his former opponents. By the time the movie begins, Battlin' Bob has been dead for several years.

Because he's hungry to advance his career, Erik doesn't dig deep enough. He writes a story for his paper's Sunday magazine, receives lots of accolades and then discovers that he's been had. The movie suddenly becomes a study in journalistic ethics. Should Erik reveal his colossal mistake or should he try and cruise past any consequences?

It didn't happen this way. J.R. Moehringer wrote the story for the Los Angeles Times. Before he finished, Moehringer figured out that the fighter was not telling the truth. He wrote an article, but quite a different one than the movie suggests.

"Resurrecting the Champ'' -- which was directed by Rod Lurie -- manipulates the plot so that the "revelation" about the man who claims to be Satterfield comes as a shock. And if you don't already know the story, it may work that way. Also true, a story about a writer who discovers a more complex truth might have been considerably less dramatic.

The point: Movies "based on" or "inspired" by real events can be problematic. The dramatist's instincts are often at odds with those of a journalist. Most such movies at least try to get close, and I suppose that a "ballpark" standard should be applied. Is the movie "in the ballpark" when it comes to the actual story?

By that measure, "Resurrecting the Champ" fouls one out of the park when its most surprising development comes to light. Erik's newspaper is badly embarrassed. He faces personal disgrace. Even his relationship with his young son might have been jeopardized by his carelessness. Matthews rightly points out that the facts don't support this narrative tack: The real story, he says, provides a nice example of a newspaper doing its job correctly.

I found "Resurrecting the Champ" to be reasonably entertaining in the way that phony, romanticized movies sometimes are, and I admired Jackson's performance. But I may have given short shrift to the movie's ethical problems, perhaps because "Resurrecting the Champ" isn't all that important -- at least not with a capital "I." Let's face it; a story about an ex-pug claiming to be someone else doesn't exactly reach Watergate proportions.

Still, hats off to Matthews for pointing out a disturbing truth about "Resurrecting the Champ." Even if it takes a little sting out of the movie's punch, it's important that audiences know, and it demonstrates a telling point: If filmmakers believe they must choose between factual accuracy and perceived dramatic impact, they'll usually forget the facts. In such a conflict, drama almost always becomes the heavy favorite.

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