Movie Review: ‘The Survivor’
Plot: Polish Jew Harry Haft (Ben Foster) survives the horrors of Auschwitz and begins a boxing career in the United States while simultaneously searching for his lost love Leah (Dar Zuzovsky). After a string of defeats in the ring, Haft devises a desperate plan to ultimately let Leah know he’s alive. Harry pairs with reporter Emory Anderson (Peter Sarsgaard) to tell his horrific story of survival and orchestrates a fight with future heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano to increase publicity. But can Harry endure the backlash from the Jewish community and get through the fight unscathed?
Review: Ben Foster is one of those actors that I sincerely feel should be a household name. From The Punisher to 3:10 To Yuma, to Hell or High Water, the guy consistently delivers excellent performances. His repertoire is about as diverse and eclectic as it gets. (Seriously how many people can do 30 Days of Night and then turn around and do The Messenger?) Unfortunately, he just hasn’t attained the name recognition that his former co-stars Chris Pine and Woody Harrelson have. Perhaps it is by choice or maybe the guy just has a bad agent but regardless, name recognition does not correlate with talent and skill.
With The Survivor, Foster delivers a career-best performance that is set to be the definitive work of his career. Always visceral and often heartbreaking, Foster’s Harry Haft lights up the screen and draws you into his world. Foster is in virtually every scene, so it is almost entirely his movie. He carries it from start to finish, which is fortunate as most of the other characters feel underdeveloped. Mind you Vicky Krieps and Billy Magnussen deliver excellent performances as Harry’s wife and Nazi tormentor respectively, however, it left me wanting more. The Survivor could have easily been another thirty minutes long and I would have been fine with it if those characters were developed further. Thankfully, Danny DeVito somewhat makes up for it as Charlie Goldman, a fellow Jew from Marciano’s camp who decides to give Harry some pointers to even the odds.
Barry Levinson again demonstrates why he’s one of the best directors of the last fifty years. The Oscar-winning director (Rain Main) paints a varied tapestry of Harry’s life, with the main focal point being his attempts to secure a fight with Rocky Marciano in 1949 with flashbacks back to his time in Auschwitz. The Auschwitz scenes are as brutal and harrowing as you would expect them to be and rendered beautifully in black and white. The scenes where Harry is forced to fight fellow Jews to the death will rock you to your core, especially one in particular where Harry is forced to fight a close friend. George Steel’s cinematography is nothing less than stunning and touts multiple memorable shots. I wish the cinematography meshed better with the film’s music. Surprisingly, one of the weakest parts of the film is the great Hans Zimmer’s score. For a film steeped this much in tragedy and the endurance of the human spirit, Zimmer’s score comes off fairly pedestrian
I also can’t say enough about Justine Juel Gillmer’s screenplay. It’s not easy to bring a story like this to the big screen. (Or rather small screen since this is an HBO Max film.) Harry at the absolute minimum is a complex human being. The choices he made to survive are horrific and demonstrate the unfathomable decisions some prisoners had to make just to survive. Gillmer does a fantastic job revealing what happens when morality gets suspended and how that has dire consequences for people. Indeed, Harry risks everything by publishing his story just so he can have the chance to see his lost love. The repercussions are immediate as many in the Jewish community ostracize him calling him a traitor and spitting in his beer.
The third act of the film reveals how Harry’s actions eventually paid off as it flashes forward to 1962 when he and Leah are finally reunited. It’s a bittersweet and tragic moment and sports one of the most emotional scenes I’ve seen in a long time. Melancholy and heartbreaking doesn’t even being to cover it. Devastation is closer to the truth.
Ultimately, The Survivor denotes one man’s journey through the horrors of the Holocaust and beyond. It’s an intimate portrait that focuses on the personal cost of the Holocaust rather than the far-ranging global impacts. Ben Foster delivers an acting clinic and a performance that will linger in your brain long after the credits have rolled.
My rating system:
1 God Awful Blind Yourself With Acid Bad
2 Straight Garbage
4 Sub Par
8 Very Good
10 A Must See
The Survivor: 8/10