But while the above makes “The Survivor” sound like a sports movie with an element of Holocaust lament (and it definitely is that), what Levinson and screenwriter Justine Juel Gillmer have concocted is a psychological drama whose first inclination is to always think about what events felt like, and what, in a larger sense, they meant, rather than concentrating exclusively on what’s next.
Levinson burst into Hollywood with the low-budget drama “Tin Men” and never entirely departed from the “a bunch of guys hanging out and talking” impulse, whether in the capitalism satire “Tin Men,” the family memoir “Avalon,” or the gangster picture “Bugsy,” starring Warren Beatty as a brutal Jewish gangster who founded Las Vegas. “The Survivor,” surprisingly and often with unexpected buoyancy, is another work in this vein, always choosing character and dialogue over the mandate to constantly drive the plot forward to the next big event. Gillmer’s script gives Harry lots of opportunities to interact with the supporting ensemble, which is composed exclusively of pros who are so good at what they do you’re always happy to see them. And none of their characters quite end up being the purely functional cardboard cutouts you initially assume they’ll be.
Vicky Krieps plays Miriam Wofsoniker, who works at an agency that tries to help survivors find loved ones who vanished during the war but that they believe may still be alive. When Harry shows up looking for help in finding his wife, whose disappearance obsesses him, you assume the film is positioning a love story wherein a man who is dead inside comes back to life, but that’s not how it plays out. John Leguizamo’s Pepe and Paul Bates’ Louis Barclay are introduced as two of Harry’s trainers, and Danny DeVito at first fills a similar role as one of Marciano’s trainers, Charlie Goldman, but any assumption that they’re mainly here to cheer the hero on and train him up is intriguingly subverted by how “The Survivor” treats them as a way to discuss the cold-blooded and self-serving arbitrariness of hatred.
Goldman, whose birth name is Israel, ends up offering Harry two days of training so that he won’t be completely destroyed in the ring. The upshot is a lovely film-within-a-film wherein a Black man, a Puerto Rican, and two Jews go upstate and seem to spend as much time contemplating their relative status within WASP-run America as they do working on Harry’s hooks, combinations, and footwork. The sequence is classic Levinson, filled, like the rest of the movie, with instantly quotable lines, as when Goldman exits an outhouse in the forest and grouses, “There’s stuff in there from the Revolutionary War. Aaron Burr probably dropped a load there.”