Erik (Josh Hartnett) means well. But it hardly matters in Resurrecting the Champ, which focuses on broad frameworks of ethics, truth, and corruption as these emerge in sports and journalism. Arriving in theaters at a moment when professional sports have come under unusual scrutiny, Rod Lurie’s treatise is by turns timely and frustratingly out-of-date, insightful and lunkheaded. Erik’s dilemma — he wants to be a sports writer but remains cowed by the long shadow of his father, a much admired dead sports writer — is not exactly news, but the movie positions it alongside still pressing questions about race, class, and gender. It’s a disappointment that the movie does not, in the end, sort through these questions and instead falls back on the white hero’s lessons-learning as its overriding plot.
A staff writer for the Denver Times, Erik is both earnest and ambitious. Or so he thinks. As much as he’s willing to spend long hours attending boxing matches or training camps in order to “report,” he’s apparently not much of a storyteller. Still, he does evince a certain understanding of his limits. “A writer, like a boxer,” he says early on, “must stand alone. Having your work published, like fighting in a ring, puts your talent on display… Sometimes the results can be disastrous.” This not only sets up a coming disaster in the plotline, but also establishes Erik’s notion that he actually has talent.
At the same time, he’s convinced others don’t see it: his estranged wife Joyce (Kathryn Morris) is a successful columnist at his paper, and his editor, Metz (Alan Alda) tells him, “Your copy, it’s unimpressive: a lot of typing but not much writing.” Moreover, his young son Teddy (Dakota Goya) hopes that someday his daddy will introduce him to his famous friends, like Shaq or John Elway. Unfortunately, Erik has stretched that truth a bit: he doesn’t actually know the former Broncos quarterback, another lapse in judgment that sets up for another tense moment, when Elway appears in his own real flesh and Erik, sitting with Teddy in the same restaurant (what are the chances!?), has to act out a scene for Teddy’s benefit.
If Erik’s lying is not exactly pathological, it is deeply uninteresting. And it makes his meeting with the Champ (Samuel L. Jackson), a downtrodden former boxer now living, mostly drunk, on the street, seem almost sinister. This despite the fact that Erik first saves the Champ from a squad of hard-drinking young white men who have made their own sport of beating him up. Happening on the incident in an alley, Erik is righteously appalled, then proceeds to find his own way of exploiting the man. He will make this miserable fellow, once hopeful and strong, the focus of a story, a feature article for the Times magazine that will make Erik look good. What the heck, says the Champ, when Erik buys him a beer and makes his pitch.
Now equipped with yet another father figure — in addition to his dad, Metz, and the magazine editor (David Paymer) who casually okays the project — Erik thinks he’s on his way. He also neglects to tell Metz what he’s doing, which means his errant handling of it can proceed apace, sans editorial input. With the help of a young, unnaturally speedy intern (Rachel Nichols), Erik goes so far as to rush the article to make an unexpected deadline. This means he doesn’t do enough research and interviews, and doesn’t check facts. The piece is published as a splashy cover story.
Inspired by J.R. Moehringer’s Los Angeles Times magazine article of a decade ago, Resurrecting the Champ emphasizes the seductiveness of Erik’s success. He gets a call to interview boxers in Vegas for Showtime (courtesy of a stereotypically cynical producer played by Teri Hatcher) and receives professional kudos from colleagues as well as gee-whizzy admiration from cute little Teddy. The “disastrous” results he warned you about at film’s start have to do with his inability to discern distinctions between truth and lies, that is, his need to publish and please those around him and his lack of integrity.
The film adds on, at least from Erik’s perspective, that his mistake is premised on trusting the Champ, which makes him feel a victim, betrayed by a source he believed in. This is actually not uninteresting, as the trust stems from ignorance and an especially insidious kind of arrogance. Though Erik does mean well, and appears to like the Champ, his lack of attention to detail is telling: he looks at old tape (about two minutes), a few old photos, and sees what he wants to see. Perhaps to his eye the black boxers of the olden days “look alike.” Perhaps his faith in the Champ is all about Erik, his daddy business: when he shows the old video, discovered by the intern, to the Champ, the old man chokes up: “I hope, one day, God willing, your son does for you what you just done for me, in time.” (What Erik misses is the Champ’s next thought, acknowledging his self-performance: “Thought that would be a good line to exit on.”)
Or maybe Erik just is so dim that he doesn’t understand what’s at stake in his storytelling, the way it reflects and repeats a history of storytelling, for money and pleasure, a history of exploitation that sports and journalism share regarding athletes. Like Lurie’s other films (The Contender, Deterrence), Resurrecting the Champ reduces challenging answers to melodrama. (Hartnett’s lack of convincing dramatic weight is not helpful.) Erik is in a gnarly business, where stories and truth aren’t always different: “The one thing people don’t want is the truth,” explains Metz by way of a lecture. Because truth is too ambiguous, they want heroic tales or tragedies, moral lessons and judgments. They also don’t want to know their own part in the storytelling, their needs and expectations, their assumptions about character and outcome. But even if “people” are a problem for writers, Resurrecting the Champ is responsible for using the Champ’s complicated story to tell Erik’s simpler one.