Criticism | The Survivor: Ben Foster Delivers Powerful Performance in HBO Acquired Biography Drama

Watched movie during the 2021 Toronto Film Festival

Sports dramas have a special place in Hollywood. With their own shots, they draw this much-loved analogy between the trials of physical challenges and the ailments of life. Rocky, Creed: Born to Fight, and Raging Bull are some of the most memorable examples of how this combination works both artistically and culturally. And the story of boxer Harry Haft would be no different. As someone who has struggled in the ring to survive – literally – the horrors of concentration camps, his story is the inspiring and well-applied quintessential of how sport and life are interrelated and interconnected aspects. And in The Survivor, Barry Levinson delivers his best work, abusing Ben Foster’s powerful and painful performance.

With a slender build and a cadaverous physical body, Foster presents Harry Haft to us with supremacy and pain. His constantly tired gaze and the deep shadows under his eyes, which emanate in endless, throbbing pain, hide the voracity of a man who had been used by Nazi soldiers as a fighting cock to the delight of the platoon. Forced to fight against other Poles so as not to be killed inside the concentration camp he was in, he made boxing his daily survival valve. With every fight new wounds were born in his body and mind, and every heart-wrenching moment of that journey is beautifully presented onscreen by Levinson and Foster’s union with screenwriter Justine Juel Gillmer.

Underneath a black-and-white photograph devoted to Haft’s past, The Survivor abuses this aesthetic to explore shadows in a more dense and intimate way, contrasting beautifully with natural light and still highlighting the actor’s body language. – who steals the scene all the time with his awesome transformation. Here, Foster stands between exhausted physical strength and the emptied face of someone suffering from rickets due to their utter lack of quality of life. And still revolving around the psychological conflicts of being someone seen as a traitor to his people – for being forced to fight for and for the Nazis – we have a biographical drama that explores another complex dimension of what was life in a concentration field.

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Honoring Haft’s story, The Survivor goes beyond the clichés of the sports drama subgenre, making boxing an additional aspect of its protagonist’s story – which still has a grand cast consisting of Billy Magnussen, Vicky. Krieps, Peter Sarsgaard, Danny DeVito and John Leguizamo. Even though sport is the greatest link between the character and his trajectory, emotional pains howl at the top of their lungs in flashback scenes and painful thoughts that tormented, protected and even saved the boxer from an unworthy death and unfair.

Between the trauma and the glimmer of hope of someone who has never stopped fighting for their life, the biopic is passionate, it tears the hearts of the audience, and invites us into a conversation about mental and emotional health. With careful makeup work done in Foster, The Survivor is an inspiring drama that, much more than presenting us with a little-known story, takes us by the hand to a creative and life-changing process experienced by the actor. Delicate and moving, this film reminds us that hope can be born in the most arid and sterile areas. Even though there is a lot of pain.

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