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The Rocky Road

F.I.S.T. directed by Norman Jewison at the Sack Cinema 57

By Richard S. Weisman

YOU HAVE TO forgive, or overlook, too much to bring yourself to like a movie like F.I.S.T., even though any story "spanning three decades in the growth of the American labor movement" should seemingly have intrinsic appeal. You have to forgive the fact that, early on, the movie simply becomes a vehicle for the trotting-out of Sylvester Stallone in his first post-Rocky role (apart from his Mussolini imitation at the Academy Awards). Here, Stallone, cast as the street-tough union organizer for the so-called "Federation of Interstate Truckers," hardly throws a single punch during the entire proceedings (all right, so he does bludgeon someone to death with an axe handle at the beginning of the movie). Instead, Stallone's Johnny Kovak and Best Friend Abe Belkin (David Huffman), canned from their first factory jobs for union agitation, are tapped as organizers--on a commission basis--for their F.I.S.T. local, and gradually build the union's membership through the use of friendly spiels and free passes to Rocky. Stallone predicates his rise to success within F.I.S.T. (F.I.S.T.??) upon his refusal to use strongarm tactics within the union's ranks, and his adoption of forceful tactics against management instead, in defiance of the "fatcat" union leadership in Washington.

"We're through takin' punches. You don't win fights takin' punches. Nobody ever won a fight takin' a punch," Kovak tells his men. He leads them on a strike against one of the city's toughest anti-union employers, watches as they get their heads broken open by union-busting goons, and then vows to fight back. During the ensuring fight, Ricky (as already mentioned) bludgeons to death a man who tries to shoot him; when the bloated Senator Andrew Madison (Rod Steiger) opens his McClellanesque hearings with evidence culled from the recently disenchanted (and just murdered) Abe, one major chunk of the committee's case rests on the report of the bludgeoning. The rest of the questioning deals with the relationship which Kovak's Teamster-clones have enjoyed with the Mafia during the union's meteoric climb in membership, a relationship which entangles the former Lord of Flatbush in a scandal the magnitude and significance of which he cannot quite grasp:

"They used to use shotguns and goons on us. Now it's senators... You may bring me down, but you can't destroy this union--because we can close this country down!!" Stallone tells the almost laughably arrogant Senator Steiger, the quality of whose "evidence" is matched only by the quality of his overblown, obnoxious performance. You can't really blame the hairpiece-clad Andrew Madison (Andrew Madison??), however, for lighting into a union with the provocative name of F.I.S.T., can you? When Kovak exhorts the men: "It ain't a bunch of letters like any other union. It says fist. One fist! That's what we are!" they respond with a spontaneous display of extended fists which make the proceedings resemble nothing more than a Hitler youth rally.

YOU'VE GOT TO forgive a lot. Stallone, perfect as Rocky, here turns in an unconvincing performance at best. No midgets were assigned to play opposite him this time around, and he comes up looking awfully short; both Peter Boyle (his corrupt predecessor as F.I.S.T. president) and Brian Dennehy (the non-union employer whom Rocky arm-twists into embracing the concept of trade unionism) look as though they could throw Stallone right through the nearest window. Instead, we are led to believe that Stallone's rise to power in the union is somehow grounded in his unique persuasive rhetorical abilities. One problem, however: like Stallone's Rocky, Stallone's Kovak can't really talk. He does, however, mumble a lot, and mumble in convincing fashion, as the union's membership swells to several million under his leadership. Always attuned to the needs of the rank-and-file, Stallone is also aware of the importance of "push," and consequently falls into bad company: he inadvertently sells his soul to the Mafia (in the guise of mobster Babe Milano, played in sleazy enough fashion by Tony Lo Bianco), and watches--along with millions of Americans who saw him do so well against Apollo Creed--as his self-created American dream grows, and then collapses in disarray, about him.

F.I.S.T. can only be appreciated, perhaps, as a series of images--maybe it would only be necessary to turn off the sound to make this Norman (Fiddler on the Roof, Rollerball) Jewison production a good movie. Stallone shares writing discredit for the movie with Joe Eszterhas, who, I am told, should have known better. The script is an encumbrance which even the most vivid images of strike-breaking riots, negotiating sessions and Senate hearings cannot rise above. When we are forced to listen to Stallone for any extended period of time, we are reminded of how Adrian must have felt when she tried to hear what he was saying over the crowd noises after the Creed fight.

Stallone / Eszterhas / Jewison wanted to offend no one too much, and they end up offending everyone just a little. Johnny Kovak's commitment to the union becomes little more than a grand obsession after a while; stripped of his early idealism, Kovak becomes an inadvertently fascistic figure--ever-vigilant against management abuses, he gradually loses sight of the "enemy within." Ultimately, F.I.S.T. fails because it decides that the easiest way to pull off a story glorifying the triumph of labor over capital is to apotheosize Stallone; yet in furthering--if unwittingly--the alienation of the rank-and-file from union leadership, Stallone at best emerges as an anti-hero. Cheered by crowds of truckers after being grilled mercilessly--and ludicrosly--by Steiger, Stallone is later gunned down by some deus ex Mafia who obviously resented the notion of Rocky Balboa dressing in a business suit.

ONE WONDERS just what F.I.S.T. is trying to prove. Yes, it correctly isolates the roots of Teamster-like corruption, and recreates the mood of the McClellan hearings rather effectively. Yes, it tells the story of the birth of a fictitious-but-powerful Hoffaesque labor boss. But one cannot help but wonder why such a story is necessary, except as a vehicle for the portrayal of random, gratuitous and organized violence--both management and union-instigated--with the imprimatur of Rocky legitimacy provided by Stallone, and sealed, in absurd enough fashion, with a fist.

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