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Bridging gaps between who a people are and the policies of their government is not an easy thing, often seen as one in the same, even if of course, great differences exist. Who we are might not be the same as where we are from, a lesson many films have made a message of, pitting a character’s background against perceptions of what others believe to be true.
In terms of building inspiration, there’s few genres in film that work best than the sports drama, the underdog earning their place in the ranks while facing the toughest of challenges. That usually means a player who is smaller or less advantaged getting a chance to strike at a glory they wouldn’t normally get. Throw in some tumultuous politics and well, there’s all the more reason to get behind the hero.
At the start of the 1980s, the United States was in the middle of a crisis with Iran, where a group of students took over the American Embassy in Tehran holding hostage fifty-two diplomates, leading a wave of hatred in the US that saw many Iranians in the country living in fear. For 17-year-old Ali Jahanili (George Kosturos), a refugee of the conflict in Iran who was smuggled into the United States, he finds adjusting to life in a small California town one of great joy but more so, extreme hardship. When he joins the wrestling team, trying to fit in, he discovers an untapped talent that leads to support from places he didn’t expect but also enemies who wish to hurt him.
Directed by Alex Ranarivelo, and based on a true story, American Wrestler: The Wizard, is a film of absolutes, one structured to fall precisely into a very deep set of tracks that have long been traveled before. It is familiar for everything we’ve come to expect in the genre and like many that follow suit, has few surprises in marching along to its expected conclusion, with nearly every conceivable hurdle and celebration tossed into the mix. Now all of that might seem like it would leave American Wrestler a forgettable watch, but there is a reason pop songs that sound alike continue to stay on top. It triggers something baser within us that just feels good. American Wrestler … just feels good.
From The Karate Kid to The Mighty Ducks and everything in-between, all the tricks are here but all are delivered with enough respect for the audience and the characters to make it as moving as it intends, with several key performances that, while rigid in design, are highly effective. That includes Kosturos, who is very good as Ali, but also William Fichtner as a Vietnam War vet coach and Ali Afshar as Ali’s influential uncle (whose life the film is based on). They are the two sides of the coin per se and their relationship as father figures for the boy are well played out. Jon Voight shows up in a some key moments as the school principal and earns some high marks for lending further authenticity to the story.
American Wrestler: The Wizard doesn’t put too much spin on the politics of it all, using the hostage crisis as a backdrop to give some credibility to the hostile reception Ali often receives, instead keeping it more focused on the troubles of being the new kid at school the bullies target. That he’s Iranian in a time when they are getting beaten in the streets just for being that, gives the film a darkness that most in the genre lack. While much of the film is easy to see where it’s going, it seems to know that and puts all its efforts in making the experience as impactful as it can. For that, it succeeds.
Director(s): Alex Ranarivelo
Actor(s): George Kosturos, William Fichtner, Jon Voight, Lia Marie Johnson
Genre: Drama, Bio