Starring: Ben Foster, Vicky Krieps, Billy Magnussen, Peter Sarsgaard, John Leguizamo, and Danny Devito.
Directed By: Barry Levinson
Where I Watched it: HBO MAX
English Audio Description Available?: Yes
Description Provided By: Zoo Digital
Description Written By: Steven Peltier
Narrated By: Kelly Brennan
The Plot: Based on the true story of Harry Haft (Foster), a Holocaust survivor who has come to America and finds out that someone he knows is already living here. So, he attempts to grab their attention by climbing the ranks of the boxing world and challenging Rocky Marciano to a fight, figuring the press will help him. However, when a journalist (Sarsgaard) hears of his quest, the truths about Harry’s time in a concentration camp, where he fought both for his life, and also the entertainment of Nazi soldiers, isn’t as well received as he would have hoped. But Harry’s journey is full of choices no man should ever have to make, and his determination to find some normalcy in his life in spite help to shape this biopic.
What Works: Ben Foster has been on “the list” of actors long overdue for an Oscar nomination, and The Survivor shows why, and it’s another performance of his likely to be overlooked. I don’t quite understand the HBO drop, and whether or not he’s even eligible, or if he was eligible last year and just no one saw this, but Foster is giving the performance of his life trying to pay Harry Haft and his legacy their dues.
He takes on this monumental task of playing this strong willed, determined individual who seems driven at times just by the need to survive in spite of all that continues to be thrown his way, and later he seems to want to move forward and leave behind that exact same part of himself, but he’s consistently haunted by those very decisions of his past. It’s a dynamic performance of strength and struggle that only an actor of Foster’s caliber could pull off.
There’s always a hesitancy with me to praise films that simply just highlight the suffering, because it is not there for our enjoyment. It’s there to provoke thought and conversation, and I hope that this film, with it’s powerful imagery and lack of filtering the horrors of living in a death camp, will remind those who continue to promote some idea that the holocaust didn’t happen, or continue to prop up this ever rising tide of anti-Semitic attacks, just what it was like not even 100 years ago. There are very much people alive from this time period. And we need to acknowledge their truths before they all disappear.
What Doesn’t Work: The way the fim is edited, choosing to leap through time on a whim, either because we’re just slowly being given parts of Harry’s story, or because he’s remembering it in fractured details through a nightmare both helps and hampers the film. On one hand, the movie seems to keep peeling back layers like an onion, but those layers are these horrific events that transpired, and a seemingly escalating list of horrors for Harry.
On the other hand, it makes his American journey feel so disjointed and secondary that the majority of the cast that comes through the film seems to disappear without much notice. We just don’t see them again, and it’s hard to decipher if we ever will. Based on the way the story is laid out, I did not expect to see Krieps as much as i did, and I wasn’t connecting with her in her first few scenes. I love her as an actress, as she was great in The Phantom Thread, but here she always seems out of place, because the film wanted something else.
The other notable actors, Leguizamo, Devito, and Sarsgaard are so inconsequential they come and go, and you barely notice them. The only one really worth mentioning is Magnussen, who has the task of playing the Nazi who keeps putting Harry up for fights. He’s the villain to this story, and he plays it well.
I think Barry Levinson is one of the best directors out there, but I wasn’t feeling his choices of editing, and how he laid this story out. I actually went into this knowing nothing about the film or the true story, and it took me a minute to wrap my head around what this film was doing.
The Blind Perspective: Overall, I thought the written description was solid. But our narrator is just too upbeat for this project. I would not have hired her for a holocaust drama, but I would love to hear her on other things. This is just an example of someone not really thinking things through, and the subject matter at hand. maybe she tried to approach this as neutral and somber as possible, but she still comes off as somewhat excited at times in the film where that emotion would be otherwise inappropriate.
Final Thoughts: Although I felt let down at times, surprisingly, by the choices being made by Barry Levinson, and by the upbeat narration, there’s no denying that Harry’s story is a powerful one that deserved to be committed to film, and Ben Foster gives every fiber of his being to making sure this survivor is portrayed in the most honest way possible. If for nothing else, just show up for Foster’s performance. He’s really just that good.
Final Grade: B+