New Mark Wahlberg/Christian Bale boxing movie THE FIGHTER, set in Lowell, MA, isn’t a documentary by a long stretch. It is a story, though, that deals with the real lives of Lowell brothers and boxers Dicky Eklund and Mickey Ward, and that best-of-both-worlds phrase: “BASED ON A TRUE STORY” sits right there at the beginning of the credits.
What I really liked about it was The Fighter’s movie-within-a-movie storyline that used a re-created version of the real 1995 HBO documentary featuring then-drug-addict Dicky Eklund. In the movie (I mean the THE FIGHTER), the documentary is called CRACK IN AMERICA, and we get glimpses of the team of documentary filmmakers at work. They hover in the background of the story gathering footage and everyone, especially Dicky, is excited by the attention − look, HBO’s making a movie about me!
That’s at least before the TV broadcast of CRACK IN AMERICA, which THE FIGHTER turns into a nasty emotional wake-up call for the characters. I liked seeing the subjects of a documentary watching themselves on-screen dramatized as a key event in a narrative – it’s a unique kind of experience that might be thought of as having intangible effects, but here we get to see the documentary’s impact on Dicky Eklund and his entire family played out, as they deal with humiliation on national TV, incorporate it into what they’re doing, and then move past it.
The real CRACK IN AMERICA was HIGH ON CRACK STREET: LOST LIVES IN LOWELL. You can watch it here:
As the title suggests, it’s pretty gruesome stuff. Hitting as many vicarious horrors as it does crack pipes, LOST LIVES IN LOWELL is focused on the seedy world of drug addicts in a post-industrial New England town. It doesn’t have many scruples in terms of accessing its subject’s grimmest moments for shock value, but the documentary is powerful for letting the personalities of the real individuals/characters in the film, including Dicky, reach through the overriding “stay off drugs” message to grab at us.
THE FIGHTER uses LOST LIVES IN LOWELL as a reference point – check out some of Dicky’s mom’s outfits, for starters. The locations are the same, Christian Bale’s performance as Dicky borrows all kinds of mannerisms from the real person, and one of Mickey Ward’s trainers, Mickey O’Keefe, plays himself in The Fighter and is also in the documentary.They’re very different movies, but LOST LIVES IN LOWELL’s and THE FIGHTER’s drug addiction-TV-documentary tactics and sports-movie clichés rework the same source materials into distinct, but overlapping versions.
There’s another TV version of Dicky Eklund, maybe the best one, in the taped copy of his big fight with Sugar Ray Leonard – in THE FIGHTER and in LOST LIVES IN LOWELL we see him and his family watching and reliving tape again and again. Documentary or fictionalized, these movies and TV shows have an impact on the lives and self-images of the people in them, and the real Eklund/Ward family has more movie versions to reconcile than most!