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Crystal Downing

Fighting Family

What's at stake in 'The Fighter'.

Incarcerated by Mussolini for Communist activities, Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) had plenty of time to wonder why workers around the world had not embraced Marxism. In his Prison Notebooks, he concludes that proletarian revolt was restrained by "cultural hegemony," multiple institutions in society reinforcing the values that buttress capitalism. Influenced by Gramsci, Louis Althusser (1918-1990) called such institutions Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs), arguing that ISAs control not only the way people act but also how they think about their very identities. In his list of multiple ISAs—religion, politics, education, art, the media—Althusser includes the family.

Family is the subject of The Fighter, released in December 2010 and nominated for multiple awards. Filled with stunning performances, the film functions as a foil to Althusser, in both senses of foil: something that reflects as well as something that deflects. Based on the true story of a family living in Lowell, Massachusetts, during the 1990s, The Fighter is pitched as a boxing-triumph movie. Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) surmounts multiple setbacks in order to win an international boxing match. Ho hum.

But in fact the film offers much more. Micky is not the only fighter. His half-brother, Dicky (the astonishing Christian Bale), became "The Pride of Lowell" when he knocked down boxing great Sugar Ray Leonard in 1978. Now a shadow of his former self, Dicky shadow-boxes in a crack-house, knocking down people who get in his way. Rather than punches, the brothers' mother, Alice, throws dishes and a frying pan at George, Micky's father. And her seven adult daughters get in a hair-pulling cat-fight with Micky's new girlfriend, Charlene (Amy Adams). Though this bellicose behavior can be credited to gritty working-class conditions (a vulgarity reflected in the film's raw dialogue), all the fights center around one issue: the control of Micky's boxing career. The film, then, is about hegemony, each fighter ...

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