The post-WWII boxing drama wastes Ben Foster and Vicky Krieps in an overfamiliar prestige drama that botches its handling of the Holocaust.
For a one-time perennial Oscar-contending director, Barry Levinson has had one of the most curious careers of the 21st century. His recent work includes thrillers and comedies like Envy, The Bay, and Man of the Year. With Bill Murray vehicle Rock the Kasbah, Levinson seemed to have mildly scraped the zeitgeist once again. Now, with The Survivor he’s plunging back into the Oscar/prestige realm with The Survivor, a black-and-white Holocaust/ boxing drama.
The Survivor is based on the life of Harry (original name Hertzko) Haft, a Jewish man who survived Auschwitz by boxing as a ringer for a Nazi commander. When this becomes public knowledge, Haft is derided as a traitor by New York’s Jewish community. In execution, The Survivor hews closely to the standard patterns of prestige drama, to the point that there is very little distinct or interesting about its craft.
Harry is searching for his lost love, a woman named Leah whose fate after being imprisoned in the death camps is unknown. Harry believes she is alive. He boxes in the hopes of gaining enough notoriety to let Leah know he exists. The Survivor’s boxing arc is anticlimactic, but the picture tries to swell its audience’s emotions anyway. Unfortunately, it tries to do this through goofy, over-directed black and white flashback sequences to Auschwitz that are, in practice, callous towards the atrocities perpetrated there. Levinson tries to squeeze out the tears and make his boxing matches feats of human pain and suffering, both mental and physical. The Survivor is a far cry from Raging Bull. Heck, it’s a far cry from Cinderella Man.
Ben Foster delivers an Oscar-friendly showcase performance, particularly with regards to Haft’s accent, but there simply isn’t much gusto to his performance. The Survivor wants to examine him as both a victim and a perpetrator, but the execution is so clumsy that nothing fruitful comes of it. Vicky Krieps, brilliant in Phantom Thread, is stuck playing the frustrated-woman-(and eventual wife)-trying-to-gain-her-troubled-man’s-trust hits.
The Survivor wants to examine him (Haft) as both a victim and a perpetrator, but the execution is so clumsy that nothing fruitful comes of it.
For Levinson, who has brought out great performances from great actors in kinetic and energetic showcases like Diner, Wag the Dog, Avalon, Bugsy, and Rain Man, The Survivor seems lethargic even when it tries to instill heavy emotions in its many threads – boxing, romance, the fallout of war. It drags its feet through the mud. The only real bright spot to be found here is Danny DeVito’s performance as a wise-cracking boxing coach, but like so much else in The Survivor, the character is a well-intended but tired cliché.