Monday, 22 September 2014

F.I.S.T. (1978)

F.I.S.T. is a 1978 film directed by Norman Jewison from a script by Joe Eszterhas and the film's star Sylvester Stallone which is a thinly disguised account of the life of Teamsters union boss Jimmy Hoffa.

Stallone plays Hoffa-alike Johnny Kovak who, following a stand off with his employer over an unfair sacking, rises through the ranks of the fictionalised Federation of Inter-State Truckers union (F.I.S.T.), initially taking a defiant and just stand for his members rights before succumbing to underhand methods, corruption and an unsavoury association with the mob.

Much like 1976's Rocky - Stallone's breakthrough film just two years prior to this - F.I.S.T. spends the first half of its running time exploring the cliches of  the poor boy big lug who, through sheer conviction, gets his shot at the big time. The difference here is that whilst for many Rocky seemed out of time in nostalgically harking back to those 1930s B movies, F.I.S.T. is initially set in the 1930s  and therefore feels quite authentic to the point of feeling like its been shot in aspic. Laszlo Kovacs' cinematography invests a halycon glow to the proceedings that is perhaps at odds with the hardships of a USA gripped by the Great Depression yet feels somehow right.  It's these scenes that satisfy the viewer the most as we see Kovak's rise and ultimately his class betrayal, allowing the mob into his efforts, to keep the power and everyone on side. It's not perfect, the more personal side of Kovak's story such as his wooing of a local girl tends to jar with everything else going on around it (though I love the comedy of him trying to make small talk  about the weather with her mother as he calls on her) and feels somewhat forced.

But it's really the 1950s set second half, which sees Kovak become the union president and in turn captures the attention of the senate committee who have naturally started to smell a rat, where the film loses some of the viewer's good will. The authentic working class reality of the characters salad days gives way to a less inspiring and all too familiar superficially glossy success story. Though it must be said structurally  the film remains sound by exploring a different type of betrayal here, that of a personal betrayal done seemingly to save the foundations of the union.

It's an interesting and serious performance from Stallone displaying the character's arrogance and pigheaded abrasive edge to get what he wants for his members but sadly he doesn't convince in the inspiration or charm stakes that such a character has to possess to get men to follow him. It's especially disappointing that this is the case as it's clear it is a failing in both his performance and in his co-authorship of the script. Stallone surrounds himself with actors who are just as authentic and compelling, but a superior script may have served them all better.

Ultimately F.I.S.T.'s message seems to be that a union needs to be as dirty and corrupt as any other American institution, and one which sees those who once took a stand against oppression and corruption from above turn to it themselves once in power. It's a pessimistic message, but one cannot deny the truth of such a message - one need only look at Hoffa, the real life character the film takes inspiration from - and there's a certain bittersweet pleasing tone in the notion that it is an equally vain and ambiguous senator, played with a seemingly affectionate nod to the old days of the political Hollywood by Rod Steiger, who ultimately goes after Kovak; suggesting the establishment will only really let someone get so far and how only so much power in life before they have to teach them a lesson and put them back in their place.

Overall, F.I.S.T is a film of two halves. 

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