On Freddie Roach
Though boxing is a well covered sport when it comes to movies, second only to say baseball or horse-racing, that doesn’t mean that it is is fully transparent or that we are given the entire picture to view; if anything these dramatically told stories serve only to further mask the true mark that it has on those men who choose to partake in it. This docu-series made by Peter Berg for HBO quickly joins the ranks of great sport stories but it does so by breaking down the barrier of fiction and telling an untold story of boxing as it is and not as we may want it to be. When i say the untold story I mean that we’re not just allowed a look into the training and personal upbringing of the fighters that are brought in to the ring – as every other film is want to provide – but rather a glance at what goes on afterwards and the grievous price these people pay for their sport, win or lose.
This show tells us something that many people either don’t know or don’t want to know and that is the fact that bouts never really end, even after the towel is tossed or the bell rung. Each of these fights is actually just a round in another larger battle, the years between bouts just seconds between bells for their bodies; because each punch adds its pain to that of the previous, plus the one before that. As we now know this accumulation of agony has a tragic effect on boxers when they get older; physically and more often than not mentally. This suffering is in the story of boxers everywhere but especially in that of Freddie Roach, a man whose body has been broken by boxing, but you wouldn’t know it to look at him or for that matter this, his show.
Though it now plays a major part in every second of his day Roach doesn’t let his Parkinson’s define him; so much so that you may not even know he had it until he told you, as I didn’t until the show did late in its pilot. As we follow the ex-fighter and now highly esteemed trainer through an average six months we can see the strain in his everyday actions: when he makes a coffee for his girl it’s like something out of an action thriller, like a hero diffusing a bomb; we sit on the edge of our seats, tense, waiting to see what will happen. Even strapping his fighter’s fists before a bout is an extreme effort for him and yet he does it himself every time: patiently, methodically and perfect. He does it as a labour of love because that is how dedicated he is to his boys. Hell, he doesn’t just tape their fists he also takes them, stepping into the ring to spar with them while they work on their swing; something most of us healthy folk would rightly fear doing.
I don’t want to give you the wrong impression though, Freddie Roach is not your usual sports movie protagonist: he’s not the underdog ( one of his fighter’s is an eight time world champion), no one is threatening to close down his gym ( hell, he appears to be really rather rich) and most of all he is not perfect ,nor is he given a glamorized depiction through the shows direction. There are times when Roach lives right up to his namesake through some dark and brutal behavior which Berg doesn’t shy away from showing us; he is very human and thus very flawed, but this only serves to make his moments of greatness seem all the more potent.
The show itself is constructed in a similarity gritty fashion, shaped to fit around the events that occur while the camera is rolling rather than the other way around as most doco’s are; you could almost say that they lucked out with Peppers stroke in the second episode, his journey reinforcing as it did the fatality of these injuries. The footage itself is very reminiscent of the style Berg brought to Friday Night Lights: the camera is ultra close up, the shots never cleaned up and the cuts long. There is a minimum of narration that helps guide us through the thought process but for each scene this adorns there is another that is completely silent or backed only by Rogue Wave’s original score.
Whereas this way of shooting and what it reflects in the content – an unpolished, uncensored, in your face hit of reality – was what made Friday Night Lights work so well, here it is the shows singular weakness. Documentaries are inherently authentic, or at least more so than a TV show, and so when you attempt to also film them in an authentic manner it ultimately becomes overwhelmingly accurate and loses its focus as art. Thanks to the character at its centre there are so many fascinating moments hidden in here, but there is no sense or order in their construction thanks to the scattershot approach to storytelling that naturalism brings; a through line, narrative or just emotional, would have exaggerated their effect but instead they are just left to fend for themselves.
A great sports story has that visceral connection to its audience, we feel the highs and lows of the wins and the losses along the way before that very cathartic climax that no other kind of action can match. On Freddie Roach didn’t have any of that for me and that’s not just because it didn’t prominently feature any of the actual fights; Freddie’s story should have served to be far more emotional than that of say a certain Irish upstart. Sometimes though there is a reason for the cliché constructions that certain genre cinema adheres to and though I can respect what this show did in discarding these I can’t rightly say that I enjoyed the final result as much as I wanted to because of this, which is a shame because it is without a doubt a very important piece of work; I guess I just wanted to have my cake and be educated too.