Sylvester Stallone has been involved in some misbegotten ventures in his time but none of them has been quite as curious as Norman Jewison’s union saga F.I.S.T.. Although a number of attempts are made to turn a somewhat drab and serious story into another Rocky, it remains a reasonably compelling and relatively brave attempt to dramatise union politics, a subject which Hollywood has rarely been inclined to examine. It ends up falling between every stool possible but Stallone’s committed performance and the narrative threads make it one of his most interesting, if peculiar, films.
Beginning in the early 1930s, the film examines the rise to power in the Federation of InterState Truckers of Johnny Kovak (Stallone), a humble organiser who becomes the President of the union. Beginning with his early politicisation after being fired for trying to make a deal for his colleagues, we trace Kovak through his struggles to sign up reluctant truckers, his increasing skills as a demagogue, his clumsy romance with Anna (Dillon) and his first major strike which results in the death of a close colleague. At first, Kovak is merely concerned with the awesomely powerful companies such as Consolidated Trucking but he gradually comes to realise that political corruption isn’t limited to the bosses but has also infiltrated the union.
Labour relations is probably the most important subject of the 20th Century which never made it in Hollywood. The most significant attempt to deal with it before the 1970s was the fascinating ‘blacklist’ movie Salt of the Earth, made in 1953, which dealt with a mineworkers’ strike in New Mexico. Given that the director, producer, writer and composer had all been bagged by McCarthy, that can’t really be considered a mainstream production and it’s resolutely non-Hollywood narrative didn’t prove particularly influential. Twenty years on, films such as F.I.S.T and the hugely popular Norma Rae were careful to frame the issues in traditional Hollywood stories; a consciousness raising narrative in the latter, and an expansive soap opera in the case of Jewison’s film.
For the first hour or so, F.I.S.T. is riveting melodrama, concentrating on the fight between the union and Consolidated Trucking and featuring a strong performance from Stallone. Buoyed up by the success of Rocky - itself a far more intelligent film than you’d guess from the four increasingly moronic sequels – Stallone’s willingness to take chances resulted in this film and his own quirky Paradise Alley, as uncommercial a project as you could think of. His bravery pays off in this movie and his screen presence makes him very convincing as the kind of guy who could persuade others to join a righteous cause. The confrontations between strikers and company thugs are vivid and exciting, pulling no punches in displaying the willing brutality of both sides. There are also some unexpectedly delightful scenes between Stallone and Melinda Dillon, full of touching understatement and a fine sense of social comedy, especially in a priceless scene where he is stuck talking to her mother and obeys, to the letter, an instruction to talk about nothing except the weather. Flavour is added by a strong visual sense of blue collar America – somewhat romanticised but beautifully elegaic thanks to the superb DP Laszlo Kovacs’ – and strengthened by a fine supporting cast, notably Peter Boyle as the rabidly anti-Bolshevist first president of the union Max Graham.
But once the strike is settled, something very odd happens. Gradually, almost imperceptibly at first, the film loses its grip. This is odd because nothing seems to change at first. There’s a brief but potent confrontation between Stallone and Brian Dennehy, as a reluctant local leader, and good moments from Kevin Conway and Tony Lo Bianco as seemingly sympathetic mobsters. But you can feel the focus slipping away as the film tries to deal with too much. In its impeccably liberal standpoint – the unions and companies both share similar faults and grow to resemble each other – the film is very typical of Norman Jewison’s work in general and he begins to broaden the scope of the narrative while keeping to this balanced viewpoint. This limits the film, dealing with too many people and events but never finding a point of commitment to anything being balanced and the increasingly elusive character of Kovak. This is shown particularly cruelly in Stallone’s performance. It’s not that his work here is bad; indeed, it’s extremely good and hard working. But he’s not a strong enough actor to embody the number of inner contradictions that Kovak is required to convey and he eventually resorts to grandstanding displays of shameless ham. This isn’t disgraceful and much better actors than Stallone have done the same thing – Al Pacino has built half his career on doing it – but it does nothing for the film. By the middle of the second hour you simply don’t care anymore, either about the story or the character.
At the time of release, the film came under fire for its romanticised fictionalisation of the Teamsters Union, which F.I.S.T. is quite obviously based upon, but that’s a red herring. Such hagiography would actually make it more interesting because it could then be propaganda and have more dramatic teeth. But in fact, Jewison’s aforementioned determination to be fair to all sides has no room for such affiliation. Indeed, the second half of the film, set in 1960 and featuring a greyed-up Stallone and David Huffman, as his best friend Abe, needs something to bring some fire to the confrontations between Kovak and Andrew Madison – a crusading senator played by a surprisingly muted Rod Steiger. Kovak’s eminent reasonableness and Madison’s lack of either threat or sympathy simply adds up to a bland confection which barely holds the attention. The climax of the film seems as much a compromised attempt to tie up narrative threads as the dramatic conclusion it’s meant to be. Bill Conti’s unsuitable music oozes like syrup over the final images.
This ultimate blandness can also be blamed on the script. The story should be a vital, riveting document of how unions became a great power in an inherently capitalist system but that process isn’t just made vague, it’s completely omitted. The time jump between the 1930s and 1960s means that Kovak becomes a political force without us knowing how or why, except that it’s some kind of shadowy deal involving the mob. An attempt is made to contrast Kovak with Abe – Kovak as a mob-linked politico, Abe as a committed union man – but the time shift blurs this and the relationship between the men is never made as clear as it should be. When they meet again in 1960, they greet each other like brothers but it’s not explained whether they’ve seen each other in the intervening years. I have nothing against a film which expects the audience to use its collective brain but I do object to this kind of lazy ellipsis. The unavoidable impression is that the film was edited down into two and a quarter hours from a much longer original. On the credit side, some of the dialogue is excellent, with the ethnic colour that Stallone brought to Rocky. But the dead hand of Joe Eszterhaus, so familiar to us from his use of the same femme/homme fatale plot he used in at least five films, is all too evident. The second half of the film plods along, desperately trying to remind us of the Pacino scenes from The Godfather Part Two but lacking Puzo and Coppola’s devious narrative ploys and their sense of character.
Still, the subject itself is interesting enough to make F.I.S.T. worth seeing. It’s impossible to even contemplate such a film being made by a major studio and with a major star today. Perhaps only the late 1970s, when post-Watergate cynicism led to an unusual rash of films with political topics, could have produced it. It’s a shame it lacks any real commitment or dramatic excitement but the vividness of the first half is praiseworthy. Norma Rae is a much more successful look at union politics, possibly because it is unambiguously on the side of its heroine and because it’s content to deal with a big subject on a small scale. But the ambitious scale of F.I.S.T. makes it, in Hollywood terms, a one-off.
MGM haven’t wasted any undue effort on making F.I.S.T. a memorable DVD release. One can’t entirely blame them given that the film probably has a pretty limited audience – Stallone has hardly fallen over himself to make us remember it – and, to be fair, the transfer isn’t at all bad. However, be warned that it appears to be a cut version of the film. The original running time of the film, according to the Monthly Film Bulletin was 145 minutes, cut by the studio to 130 minutes for British release. This DVD runs 125 minutes which, allowing for the PAL speed up suggests that it's the same version shown in the UK back in 1978.
The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Unfortunately, as with a number of other recent MGM releases, the disc is non-anamorphic. Given this limitation, the picture quality is quite good. Colours are very well defined, the grey/blue palate of the early scenes coming across very strongly. There is little artifacting to be seen. Grain is frequently present along with some print damage but overall this is a respectable non-anamorphic transfer.
The soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono. The dialogue is eminently clear and the music score comes across strongly.
The only extra is the pompous theatrical trailer. MGM offer us the usual 16 chapter stops and a range of subtitles.
F.I.S.T. is a film which doesn’t work but which is interesting for the ways in which it fails. Sylvester Stallone has never made anything else quite as dramatically ambitious and his performance here is strong enough to make you regret that he so rarely flexes his acting muscles anymore. The DVD is functional and uninteresting. Although cut, it does appear to feature the same version of the film shown in UK cinemas.