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August 23, 2007

Resurrecting the Champ

Sexed-up adaptation a treatise on journalistic integrity that strays too far from its source

There's no way to discuss this movie seriously without addressing the "twist" that comes about halfway through. Proceed at your own risk.

On May 4, 1997, the Los Angeles Times published J.R. Moehringer's "Resurrecting The Champ," a lengthy feature in which Moehringer untangled a complicated deception: A homeless man claiming to be boxing great Bob Satterfield was actually Tommy Harrison, a contemporary fighter who often fought under Satterfield's name. The piece was generally well-received -- it was anthologized in The Best American Sports Writing Of The Century alongside Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer -- and Moehringer went on to win a Pulitzer for another feature in 2000. The journalistic apparatus hummed smoothly: Moehringer describes his editors smacking him down and demanding that he find proof that Satterfield/Harrison was who he said he was: "Get something harder," they demanded, rather than rely only on intuition. Moehringer did his job, and everyone won.

This story bears virtually no resemblance to the one dramatized in Resurrecting The Champ. As directed by former journalist Rod Lurie, the story amounts to a long, sanctimonious lecture about journalistic integrity (and, ultimately, political protest, but hang on). For starters, protagonist Erik (Josh Hartnett) is a generic sports writer hoping for bigger things -- not the general features writer Moehringer was -- and he works for a fictional newspaper in Denver. The reason for this is that it was cheaper to shoot in Canada, and Calgary looks more like Denver than Los Angeles. And while it might seem unfair to beat up on a movie for a mere change in location -- it doesn't affect the dramatic core of the story at all -- it's just one of a series of contradictions in this awkward film: Resurrecting The Champ is a dishonest film about honesty.

Erik pumps out rote reports on low-grade boxing matches, and his editor (Alan Alda) gives him an odd verdict: the pieces are merely workmanlike, and Erik is capable of better, though space-filling competence is enough to keep the paper happy. But like seemingly every movie-damaged male, Erik lives in the shadow of his father -- a famous, now-deceased radio sports commentator -- and wants to live up to that legacy. So meeting homeless Satterfield (Samuel L. Jackson) on the street is a coup, a chance to do the kind of juicy human-interest story that builds careers. Erik begins conducting interviews and building up a profile, publishing on a rush deadline; the story is a hasty amalgam of necessity and genuine affection for Satterfield.

What happens to Erik next is unbelievable on two fronts. On the one hand, his feature causes the kind of sensation journalists dream of: he's quickly whisked into a contract with Showtime, flown out to Vegas to conduct a post-fight interview, and offered the chance to sleep with a network exec slinkily embodied by Teri Hatcher. Needless to say, it's rare for journalists to be venerated this way. On the other hand, it's discovered that Erik didn't do his homework and that Satterfield is actually Harrison, pretty much ending Erik's just-reborn career, causing a major lawsuit for the paper, etc.

Resurrecting The Champ manages to tie up these threads fairly neatly, in a way that's even more groaningly implausible than what has come before, but about as satisfying as could be. But the interesting question is, simply, why bother? Moehringer's piece is a great read, and it's got a convoluted series of twists and turns that suggest a minor-league Zodiac, the movie Resurrecting The Champ sort of wants to be, insofar as both have the tortuous vagaries of investigative journalism at their core. You could argue that Resurrecting The Champ gives the material the kind of sexing-up that Hollywood adaptations frequently do. But there's a pointed message at Champ's core, consciously or not: Hartnett's piece is a disaster because it's all reported from one source, taking everything Champ says at face value.

The analogy is obvious: For years, the American media was castigated for taking all information about the war in Iraq at face value -- straight from the Pentagon briefings to the newsroom -- culminating in the remarkable sight of the New York Times basically self-flagellating itself in public and resolving to question everything. The result is newly vigorous reporting, but for a while, to a certain type of enraged liberal observer, it seemed like American journalism was simply broken. If this is actually the point of the movie, it's ineptly made, lacking the element of procedural credibility depicted in films like Shattered Glass or Zodiac; no one would publish a non-fact-checked story that depends entirely on one source when others were available. The factual elements of the analogy are hamstrung, so it cannot rise to the level of metaphor. (One moment rang true to the press corps, when Hatcher expounds on the miracle of TV reporting: "You don't have to do anything. Just be." Bitter laughter ensued)

As a movie, Resurrecting The Champ is just above passable. Hartnett and Jackson have camaraderie to spare, Jackson delivers another riveting performance and Alan Alda contributes his best cameo in years. But it doesn't have the stomach to engage seriously with the questions it raises, copping out on the strength of its source material with a bathetic mess of unresolved daddy issues.

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Comments (1)

woo hoo, shoddy single-source journalism! woo hoo, Washington Square Ne--...woo hoo!

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