This is not a review of the Sean Durkin film. We will discuss the film, its plot, themes, and historical significance, which will play a significant role in this piece, but this is not a film review.

This a review of a pro wrestling fan trying to reconcile his thoughts on the film.

Pro wrestling changed my life.

Many fans can say similar statements, but for me, my life, my relationships, and my existence would be different if not for my fandom of the squared circle. My fandom led me to amateur wrestling, which set the course for the rest of my life.

My dad also watched pro wrestling growing up in Chicago. Though he didn’t know who Fred Kohler was or what the DuMont Network meant, he reveled in his memories of Verne Gange, Dick The Bruiser, and his personal favorite Yukon Moose Cholak. As any good dad would, my dad fostered my love of my hobby. Strangely enough, growing up, my brother and I would wrestle with my dad, and his go-to move was always the Iron Claw. The generational ties in pro wrestling are as undeniable in real life as in the film.

I’ve always carried that love of pro wrestling with me, realizing that this hobby became an indelible part of who I am as a man. That’s why I was so excited by The Iron Claw. I spent most of my twenties chasing my dreams of feature film stardom as a writer/director. Much like the film’s version of Kevin Von Erich (heart-wrenchingly portrayed by Zac Efron), things didn’t quite go the way I planned. But that’s okay.

Being an adult pro wrestling fan is a challenge because the thing you love can be frustratingly stupid, and society is very quick to point that out. Adult fans will try to point out how and when it works; pro wrestling is one of the greatest forms of storytelling. At the same time, we have to acknowledge how the medium constantly debases itself, playing to the lowest common denominator in the quest to make a quick buck. No one played to the LCD better than Fritz Von Erich (played by Holt McCallany), the titular purveyor of The Claw.

When A24, a film studio with a reputation for creating character dramas in an era of franchise set pieces, announced that they were adapting the Von Erich story, fans worldwide met the news with a collective, “Really?”

A film that explored pro wrestling’s most Shakespearian tragedy in a way that didn’t make fun of the medium intrigued me. Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler was a well-made film that seemed more interested in playing out pro wrestling’s greatest cliches before audiences, but Sean Durkin’s efforts seemed different. Here was an opportunity to share an awful story to a new audience featuring names that might sound familiar to modern ears (Ric Flair).

Since the Von Erich’s era, pro wrestling has strived to achieve a level of mainstream acceptance that has always been out of reach despite remaining not only culturally relevant but popular. Vince McMahon’s WWF tenure was nothing but olive branches to win over that mainstream acceptance to varying degrees of success.

Fritz Von Erich didn’t seek that same level of acceptance by the mainstream. Fritz was far more interested in being accepted by his peers. Though Von Erich ruled the Dallas territory as promoter and top star, he didn’t have the same power base as some of his contemporaries, such as Eddie Graham in Florida, Jim Crockett in the Carolinas, and especially Sam Muchnick, the president of the National Wrestling Alliance. As a competitor, Fritz wanted nothing more than to hold the NWA’s World Heavyweight Championship. It was the one title that was always decided upon by the collective of promoters from across the country. The NWA Champion was responsible for raising ticket sales in his home promotion (Dallas for Fritz) and in every territory he visited. It’s why choosing the champion was such a painstaking process. A wrong choice could hurt the entire Alliance’s business operations.

Fritz could have easily ignored the NWA and declared himself a World Champion in his own promotion. That precedent had been set with Verne Gagne’s AWA in the Midwest and Vince McMahon Sr.’s WWWF in the Northeast. Neither of those territories needed the NWA Champion to draw. Fritz, who had won the AWA belt from Gagne in 1963, didn’t want what he considered a secondary title.

This is where the Iron Claw film begins.

A retired Fritz, who never won the only belt that truly mattered in his industry, pushes his sons into the family business. Kevin and David Von Erich shared their father’s dreams. Efron’s Kevin shares this dream with his future wife, Pam (played with weight of emotional intelligence by Lilly James). While this goal might be Fritz’s, it’s also his son’s. But the film shows us that Kevin, while gifted in the ring with a physical charisma that gives him a unique connection to the crowd, is quickly passed by his brother David. The younger, taller Von Erich was comparable between the ropes but far exceeded his older brother’s skills with the microphone. By the time younger (and most famous) brother, Kerry, enters the ring, Kevin becomes third in the Von Erich triumvirate during their legendary feud with The Fabulous Freebirds, which the film sadly glosses over.

As David and Kerry are thrown into the darkest corners of 1980s pro wrestling excess, Kevin falls in love and becomes a family man of his own. While he clearly envies the success of his younger brothers, the emotional anchor provided by Pam allows him to avoid the pitfalls that befall his brothers.

The story of the Von Erichs is well-known to wrestling fans but provides the perfect feeding ground for the type of drama that Academy voters like. Which begs the question, how is the movie?

The film could fall short if one is a stickler for details and historical accuracy. Timelines are bent askew, and the stories of the two youngest Von Erichs (Mike & Chris) are merged for time’s sake. The film glosses over the geopolitical 1980s territory wars and truncates Kerry’s career (which makes sense since this film is Kevin’s story). Most disappointing was the performance of Aaron Dean Eisenberg as Ric Flair. One of the most iconic performers of the 80s, Flair is easily mimicable. Eisenberg captures none of Flair’s charisma or magnitude in one of the film’s most indelible sequences. It’s a moment that, under better direction, could have been a defining part of the film but is sadly lacking. It makes one wish the filmmakers would have used archival footage or an AI-generated voice instead.

Still, The Iron Claw is the best pro wrestling film ever made. The on-screen imagery shines, from the golden hues of Mátyás Erdély’s cinematography to how James Price’s exquisite production design brings the Sportatorium back to life. While the in-ring, action is filmed with heavy backlighting, painting the matches with a hauntingly ethereal glow that gives an otherworldly feel that helps blend kayfabe and the real world.

As with any A24 production, this is a character piece. The sublime performances of James and McCallany give the film a stunning and brutal subtext. Jeremy Allen White (Kerry) and Maura Tierney (Doris) both deliver in supporting roles. Ultimately, the film falls on the shoulders of its star. Zac Efron gives a career performance as Kevin Von Erich, the most stoic of the brothers. I hope the Academy keeps Efron in mind come Oscar time.

While the film doesn’t adhere to the strictest of timelines, real life typically doesn’t follow story beats. If one can view The Iron Claw as a film and not a chapter of history, they will be wowed by this stunning character drama.

Sean Durkin and Zac Efron have finally given fans that taste of serious mainstream acceptance that has eluded professional wrestling.

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