In 1977, Rocky was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. It was up against Bound for Glory, All the President’s Men, Taxi Driver, and Network. So a movie about a plucky underdog boxer who overcomes the odds was up against a biography of protest songwriter Woodie Guthrie, a movie about the breaking of the Watergate story, a damning indictment of Vietnam and the cost to the boys who came home, and a movie about the fact that the world has gone to shit and TV is evil.
And it won. Why? In this critic’s opinion, Rocky is great, but it’s not better than Network, All the President’s Men, or Taxi Driver.
So why did Rocky win? Because America needed a win. And Rocky is America.
Let’s start with the state of America in 1976. Nixon has resigned in disgrace and the Vietnam War has only been over for a year. It seems as though America’s brief spot in the sun is beginning to end. It is a grim time in the States, but a really good one for cinema. And yet America is still on the ropes, and ready to be knocked down.
Just like Rocky Balboa. He is a bum. He had potential, but now he’s working for loan sharks and trying to piece together some bullshit Philly life. He’s on his way out. The world’s given up on him. But Rocky doesn’t quit. He fights Apollo Creed and he goes the distance. NO, he doesn’t win, but he shows that there’s still life in him. He’s still got the heart to give it his all, and stand up to the world and say, “Yes, we bombed Vietnam and our president was an unrepentant crook. Yes, we secretly bombed Cambodia, which caused the rise of the Khmer Rouge and one of the worst genocides in history. Yes, we treated our veterans returning from Vietnam poorly, and aren’t one hundred percent sure what PTSD is yet. But that doesn’t matter, because I fought the champion, Apollo Creed, to a draw, and that’s what matters. The best is still ahead of me.” And after all, winning isn’t everything.
Until it is. Which brings us to Rocky II. Now where is Rocky and America? America is past the Nixon/Ford years and into the Carter years. It’s not great, but it’s better, and the ’80s are just around the corner. So in Rocky II we get a lot of the same as Rocky, but crucially this time around when it comes to fight night, Rocky wins the title. America isn’t exactly title winning at this point, but, as we’ll see later, sometimes these movies are prescient about what’s coming America’s way.
Meanwhile, Rocky III is all about ’80s excess. Rocky has become rich and lazy. He’s resting on his laurels. He has more success than he knows what to do with. Rocky III is all about America remembering why they’re so powerful. It’s like a quick wake up call to say, “Hey, America, you got through that shaky ’70s stuff, and now you’re the leader of the world, but don’t forget, you nearly lost it all.” And Rocky takes heed of these words, and relearns to be humble, but also becomes champion of the world, again. So it’s a mixed message, to say the least.
But there’s nothing mixed about Rocky IV. America is fighting the Cold War, so Rocky is fighting the Cold War. But because Rocky is America Plus, he wins the Cold War a good five years before the actual war ended. Rocky wins the Cold War in much the same way America did, with montages, James Brown, and a sex robot.
Eventually, Rocky V finds America and Rocky at a loose end. The Cold War is over, so what next? In Rocky V, Rocky goes back to his roots to relearn some more humility, which seems to happen at the start of each decade, and ends up battling an enemy that he helped fund and train. Coincidentally, Rocky V was released three months after the beginning of the first Gulf War.
Finally, there’s Rocky Balboa. The sixth Rocky is about a man who has buried his dead, and needs to prove to the world that he is still in the game, that he still has the will and determination to fight the good fight for as long as the fight needs fighting. Rocky Balboa is post-9/11 America, a country humbled and on the ropes, facing a new enemy that they are not sure they can defeat, and having to try and show the world that they can stand up to it.
And as for Creed, maybe Rocky is being psychic again and can see a big turning point on the horizon for race relations in America, or perhaps this reviewer is reading too much into a series of movies that have featured Mr. T, the music of Vanilla Ice, and a sex robot.
Featured Image: United Artists