There is a moment in Jim Sheridan’s incandescent The Boxer that reveals, in a single, perfectly timed edit, what a movie can do. It is a tiny moment, but a moment of truth nevertheless, and it is worth all the goggle-eyed reaction shots, all the cartoon gestures and music-soaked shtick of a Spielberg. It comes in the second half of the film, when Danny Flynn, played brilliantly by Daniel Day-Lewis, is in the ring with a Nigerian opponent in a posh London club where boxing functions as an amusement for patrons who drip gold and self-satisfaction. Coming up to this scene, Danny has taken a lot of psychic maulings-they are also political maulings-and he has retreated from his murderous hometown of Belfast to keep body and soul together as he rebuilds himself in self-exile, biding his time. His efforts in Belfast to use what he knows and excels at-boxing-to reconcile Catholics and Protestants have come to ruin. This broken man badly needs to be a winner again.
So at this point in the film, we’re rooting for him as, unrelentingly, he pummels the outclassed Nigerian, his anguish and loneliness unleashed on a hapless man who happens to stand in his way. We’ve been in Danny’s corner from the opening shot, when we see him boxing, solitary, skilled and sealed inside prison. He is, we learn, a courageous loner in a world of armed gang cowardice, where many of his old comrades in the I.R.A. are ready to try peace but some are not. He has served 14 years in prison-almost half his life-for doing the I.R.A.’s dirty work. In prison, he broke ranks, renounced the killers who had appropriated a just cause. Now he lands blow after blow in the Nigerian’s face, cruel and methodical in the professional way of his sport. He’s doing well, and we, his partisans, are delighted to see that. We know this riff from every boxing movie ever made: the comeback moment. Smash, smack, unhhhhh , and the underdog hero is reborn … So, whatever we may think about boxing, we rejoice. The Nigerian’s head snaps to the side.
Now cut to a woman in the audience, a black woman, averting her head, stricken, recoiling from Danny’s blow. It is as if the blow struck her in the face.
After a second or so, cut right back to the fight. We never see this woman again. She is never referred to. We never learn just who she is, though we are meant to infer that she is also Nigerian. The particulars don’t matter. She is anonymous, but she stands for everyone who loses when the winners win.
This elementary point rhymes with the point of the film: What a terrible thing it is to strike a blow in the best of causes. Victims hurt. Innocents suffer. Men and women of good will deserve admiration for seeking another way. A simple point, even banal, if put that way. Mr. Sheridan doesn’t beat our heads in making the point. It’s unforgettably there .
This is a quiet film, despite all the pounding of flesh, and it is a film that enshrines stillness. One of the striking things about Danny when he comes out of prison is how little he says. In a society where speeches come easily, he has lost the habit of easy talk, or forgone it. For much of the film, his battered yet calm face does the work of saying what he has to say, whether to his once and future trainer or his once-abandoned love, played with luminous grace by Emily Watson, who when she says, “I’m not who I was,” compresses 14 years of pain into a single line that does not exactly explain anything, draws no diagrams, but says something important. How rare to behold silence, complexity and social density in the same production! For the density of The Boxer is also wondrous to behold. Besides the two love-story principals, four other major characters hold the screen with their faces, turn the action, get their due.
There is a lot of self-congratulation in the world of American independent film these days-understandably, given the sensuous pleasures of putting a reasonably intelligent movie on the screen for less than $100 million, a movie in which recognizable human types love, hate, scheme, puzzle, misunderstand, win, lose, without the destruction of any large vehicles. But one striking thing about American independent film is how apolitical it is. Even its sexual politics is flat nowadays. As for big-budget productions, “politics” is what happens when demidemons collude to trick the public ( Wag the Dog ) or the melodramatic collision of stick figures in a grim and occasionally noble past ( Amistad ). Politics in American movies is not an arena of human endeavor where in the lifetimes of anyone in the audience, ordinary people, not only heroes, make commitments, face moral conflicts, face (or refuse to face) consequences. We have cops and robbers for that. Where are the movies in which people go through the turmoil of deciding whether to have abortions, join unions, smuggle immigrant slaves, leave cults and militias, tell their lovers they’re H.I.V.-positive, break with terrorists or nationalist crackpots?
Compare the homegrown stuff with Jim Sheridan’s work (and that of Terry George, who directed the fine Some Mother’s Son and collaborated with Mr. Sheridan on the script for The Boxer ), and American film reveals how far from independent it is. It is abjectly dependent on one of the core assumptions of American culture, which is that politics is something that other people, people unlike ourselves, do-sleaze artists, murderous Irish, slave owners and slaves, Bosnian nuts and others larger or smaller than life ( J.F.K., Malcolm X, Panther ), or certifiable as objects of satire ( Citizen Ruth, Wag the Dog ). My point is not that American movies are escapist or melodramatic; there’s nothing wrong with escaping into a synthetic world where we get to imagine the lives most of us don’t live. My point is that, in the American imagination, moral quandaries look real only when they happen to criminals or cops. Does that say something flattering about our culture?