A dysfunctional family drama with an equally dysfunctional story structure, The Fighter delivers performances — not meaning. While an argument could be made that this is what really happened, there have been several biopics over the years (Amadeus and more recently The King’s Speech come to mind) that deliver a story with purpose. The problem with this film is that there simply isn’t enough story.
The source of this deficiency lies within Micky Ward’s throughline, and it has little to do with Mark Wahlberg’s performance. Instead, it is this central character’s personal issues that are at odds with the main story. If the central conflict in the story revolves around the manipulations of Micky’s mother, sister, brother, business owners and boxing promoters (and it certainly does feel that way) then his role as Protagonist in the Overall Story is clear: to figure out some way to bring all the people in his life together. Unfortunately, the audience doesn’t know this until well towards the end of the film (“Not you, not you and not you.”), but it works on some level. With this Goal in mind, Mickey succeeds and the triumphant ending that occurs would satisfy the needs of good story structure. But if that is the case then there is a major hole in the story: what exactly are the issues unique to him? (issues that define the Main Character’s throughline).
If, instead, these familial manipulations define Micky’s throughline as Main Character (defined as distinct from Protagonist), then the Goal of the story becomes fuzzy. It could be an attempt to recover from brother Dicky’s past failure, but then the issue of what is at the heart of the sibling rivalry becomes a problem. There is a hint of something at the very end when Dicky questions his younger brother’s beliefs in regards to the fight with Sugar Ray (whether or not the champ tripped), but it is so subtle and so last-minute that it could hardly qualify as part of a complete story.
As a consequence of all these structural inconsistencies, the triumphant ending comes off false and unwarranted. Sure, it really happened, but as a meaningful result of the story’s events it doesn’t ring true. The story feels like a Tragedy, or at the very least, a Personal Tragedy. Thankfully in real life this didn’t happen, but for fans of story the film comes off as less-than-truthful and an unfortunate disappointment.