Where are you, Jimmy?

by Ernest Larsen

from Jump Cut, no. 19, December 1978, pp. 1, 8
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1978, 2005

The dismembered ghost of Jimmy Hoffa hovers over every frame of Norman Jewison's F.I.S.T. (script by Sylvester Stallone and Joe Eszterhas). But the scriptwriters quickly pry the fictional Hoffa, Johnny Kovak (Sylvester Stallone), from the gritty contest of the historical forces that produced him. In the terms of this individualizing star-struck biography, Hollywood fiction does not merely act as a distorting mirror - blurring some facts here, magnifying others there. More than that, distorted reflection takes place systematically within the well-defined glossy borders of a previously existent genre. Given the messy squalid reality of Jimmy Hoffa, Stallone and Eszterhas immediately dusted off the "success story," a genre which has served indiscriminately in the past for eminent historical figures like Woodrow Wilson, Emile Zola, Madame Curie, Eddie Cantor, and Legs Diamond, as well as for such made-up characters as MILDRED PIERCE, THE MIRACLE WOMAN, CITIZEN KANE, and THE CHAMPION. After dealing here first with some of the serious distortions in F.I.S.T. (which make the film unreliable as fictionalized labor history), I'll go on to its manipulative use of the success story genre.

It would be unfair to expect Hollywood to do anything but mangle history. At the same time, the way Hollywood executes its demolition job is of singular ideological importance. Since the working class, as subject and actor, is almost invariably ignored in U.S. film, reading the cultural messages set is motion by F.I.S.T. is a worthy task.
First, why a version of Hoffa? Obviously if the organized working class is to be seriously depicted, then it's desirable, from the point of view of those in power, that it be shown to participate in a general way in the irremediable corruption of public life. The film, if not candy coated, is somewhat ambiguous about Kovak's corruptibility. But the moral point of the portrayal is never fudged - union leaders aren't any less corrupt than, say, a U.S. president. This point jolts no one who has had union experience (I've been in three corrupt unions, for example). But highly cynical calculation is required to make a hero of a ruthless demagogue of Hoffa's caliber. At least Legs Diamond had charm.

Second, why Teamsters? In the rationalization of the labor force over the past forty years (so beautifully described by Braverman in Labor and Monopoly Capital), truckers remain among the most individualistic segment. Their relative insulation from some of capital's inroads still gives them the romantic last-cowboy aura that, with charming facility, misrepresents the widespread immiseration of the labor force.

The first part of F.I.S.T., set is the thirties and photographed with nostalgic artiness by Laszlo Kovacs, begins with Johnny Kovak as a common laborer unpacking fruit trucks. Soon after a black worker is penalized for accidentally dropping a crate, Kovak spontaneously leads a revolt against oppressive conditions. The authentic emotional impact of these scenes arises from the fact that work has long been a taboo subject in Hollywood. The facts of daily life have always been squeezed out by the fructifying myths of narrative. Even here we barely get a taste of the work process before we move into the organization of workers. Fired, Kovak is hired by F.I.S.T., the Federation of Interstate Truckers, as an organizer.

Of course, if work were ever shown on the wide screen as it is actually experienced, it would be intolerable. Work is taboo and will remain so because it is not amenable to ideological deformation. BLUE COLLAR demonstrates this by its inability to remain focused on the work process - it also must veer into the accepted realm of corruption. It's as if that's all there is: work on one side, corruption on the other. (Idle hands are the devil's workshop, my grandmother always said.) In this way, the thirties section of F.I.S.T. dramatizes Kovak's growing commitment to the union - it starts out just as a job after all  - in concert with his growing collaboration with The Mob. The movement of this section is the process of class betrayal. Embedded in this contemptible process, though, are scenes that make the film worth seeing. The new Panaflex Steadicam captures the moments of the strike with visceral immediacy - to my knowledge, the only scenes of working-class street fighting ever portrayed by Hollywood.

But the collective rebelliousness and anger of these scenes are displaced by the mean plot machinations. While we are not propelled ideologically back into the fifties, with squealer Kazan making a hero out of a squealer in ON THE WATERFRONT, we are treated to the spectacle of Jewisom having Kovak make his first deal with The Mob, not for his own personal gain but to win the strike. And how does The Mob do it? By giving the workers ax handles and throwing Molotov cocktails. This travesty of workers' ability to defend themselves destroys the film's credibility.

Meanwhile meaningless ambiguity blights Kovak's character. As the embodiment of trade union consciousness, he is impervious to the blandishments of management when tempted by a snaky lawyer, but he sullies the union's virtue by giving The Mob an in. Kovak's okay, the movie says, because technically he is incorruptible - he'll do bad for the union, not for himself. (Hoffa also always claimed never to profit from the union illegally.) But the broader message is this: unions have to be as corrupt as any other U.S. institution. In the movie's rapid shift from the collective to the individual, social movements are reduced to gratuitous moral dilemmas.

Once the strike is settled, the movie settles into chronicling Kovak's inevitable rise to power. Just as proletarian struggle in rushed offstage, politics are thrown out the window at a union meeting presided over by the union president (Peter Boyle). An he rants about purging the "Bolsheviks" from the union, there's a cut to Kovak whispering to his best buddy Abe Belkin (David Huffman),

"Bolsheviks? What are they? I haven't seen any of them around here, have you?"

Belkin dutifully shakes his head. The vast communist contribution to the organization of the working class is offhandedly dismissed while a fairly subtle reminder of their later purge is noted as quickly as possible. In his early Detroit days, Hoffa (who was trained by James B. Cannon, a leading light of the Socialist Workers Party), as an up-and-coming organizer, participated in a purge that swept away communist and Trotskyist officials and rank and file. A salve, no doubt, to liberal consciences. Kovak's convenient amnesia on this issue makes him seem more righteous than Boyle's management collaborator. As this film makes abundantly clear, unionism without a political basis can be little more than collective opportunism.

The film is glancingly accurate in its portrayal of Hoffa's major achievement as a Teamster official, the transformation of a loose federation of union locals into a tightly controlled centralized fiefdom (purse strings included). In one brief section Kovak ruthlessly enforces district obedience on a local in Chicago - with the help, once again, of The Mob. The implication that this move toward centralization, while tactically sound, was a political error is revived as the film moves into its second section.

With "Rockin' Robin" on the soundtrack, a sunlit glassy skyscraper dispels the smoky nostalgia of the poorly remembered thirties - we're catapulted into the fifties. The oppressive skyscraper, which we immediately assume to be a corporate monstrosity, in ironically revealed in the nest shot to be Washington headquarters of F.I.S.T. The offices of labor aristocrats are indistinguishable from the offices of management - an all-too-accurate visual perception. Out goes working class reality, in comes Hollywood success story.

The screenwriters' political naiveté betrays their original working-class sympathies. It would take the methodology of a Rossi (THE MATTEI AFFAIR, LUCKY LUCIANO, etc.) to do this material justice - the infinitely complex and detailed maneuvering of an uneducated but savvy man consolidating his power while still trying to push his class forward. But the screenwriters' nerve fails them, just as their hero's nerve failed him at the key moment of the strike, and they wearily trot out the story of how Kovak is victimized by his own ideal.

So Kovak's acceptance of The Mob in merely a success story genre requirement. The way in which The Mob in introduced as the personification of Evil explains nothing about Kovak or his predicament, nothing about the mechanics of corruption or the failures of unionism. In the typical success movie, the nimbus of ambition marks the exceptional man or woman early on. Then, as if afflicted with poor personal hygiene, the exception alienates friends and family. Generally the success story offers either a last-minute repentance (happy ending) or a last-second comeuppance (unhappy punishment). Kovak, of course, gets it in the neck. What is interesting about Hoffa are his contradictions, but the writers' conformity to the moral smugness of the success genre serves up warmed-over ambiguity.

In his dubious idealism, though, Kovak retains a touch of working-class consciousness that buoys this part of the film. His hoarse confrontation with Rod Steiger as head of the Senate Rackets Committee ends with him sputtering, "You just don't understand." Then he stalks out to be met on the steps of the Capitol by cheering rank-and-file truckers. The conflict between the smooth Steiger (whose character is also morally ambiguous, not to stack the cards too heavily against the union) and the inarticulate, feisty Stallone reveals a dramatic gulf between two opposed classes. At least in this fictional universe the possibility of class war can still be hinted at, if never explored.

But just as the movement of the first half was class betrayal to save the union, the second half moves its plot along on personal betrayal to save the union. Kovak's best buddy Belkin betrays him to the Rackets Committee out of another kind of idealism. The creakiness of the success melodrama requires this symmetrical betrayal to set up Kovak's inevitable downfall. By their reliance on this form, the screenwriters give over much of the emotional center of the film not to working-class solidarity but to disloyalty. It is not enough that Hollywood reduces history to a tiny range of moral options, it must also deform the meaning of these options. The gracelessness of Belkin's choice (there's no reason to think that the union will be any less corrupt after his betrayal) is mitigated only by the vulturish character of Steiger's senator. Quiet, tortured little Belkin is just another liberal stand-in, which is to say that his character is implausible everywhere but in melodrama.

Like every second or third film that stumbles out of Hollywood nowadays F.I.S.T. is discreetly anti-capital. It even goes a half step further by being fraudulently pro-worker. Furthermore, those of us lefties who like movies now have our own star. Sylvester Stallone specializes in working-class roles, which so far have been fantasies about how to escape the working class without leaving it behind. Nothing surprising in that, but Stallone's success suggests (as does BLUE COLLAR) how much difficulty Hollywood is having in finding heroes among the effete upper classes. Plug a working-class hero into a success story and you just might get a tragedy.

With all its hesitations and half-hearted apologies, F.I.S.T.'s broad ideological message can be clearly read: the working class betrays itself, specifically by allowing corruption from above. In neglecting the much more wounding source of self-betrayal, the low level of class consciousness that opens the way for scabbing, lack of solidarity, and manipulation, this message implicitly offers the glib hope that a purge of corrupt leadership will bring back healthy unionism. The film implements its false message with the formal strategy of the success story, which as a bourgeois form (it's among the baldest of the numerous guilt stirrers the bourgeoisie has built to flog itself with) is totally inappropriate to the working class. But the screenwriters were canny enough to see that it is not inappropriate to the managers of working-class docility: the union leadership. For they did and do betray the working class.