by Bill Gallagher
Talk about a long shot. Two of the best movies about boxing ever made have made it to
the screen within six months of each other. January brought us Clint Eastwood’s
masterpiece, “Million Dollar Baby,” and June brings us Ron Howard’s excellent
Depression epic in the form of a boxing movie called “Cinderella Man.”
So much was written about “Million Dollar Baby,” which won the Academy Award for
Best Picture after all, that the producers of “Cinderella Man” had to be worried they’d get
lost in the backwash of that accomplishment and be greeted with indifference. “Another
boxing movie? Gimme a break.” But lightning is about to strike twice with the impact of
a James J. Braddock jab to the jaw.
“Cinderella Man” is about a boxer named James J. Braddock who won the heavyweight
championship of the world in 1935 when doing so still mattered. There was only one
heavyweight champ in those days and Braddock was it for two years. He seized the title
despite a so-so career and an absolute pummeling in the title bout by the reigning champ,
Max Baer. The arc of his career parallels America’s fall and rise that began in October
1929. Braddock is riding high that year but a broken hand brings on a run of bad luck that
sends his family from a comfortable home in Bergen, New Jersey to a basement
apartment he can’t afford to keep heated. So went the American economy for millions.
His shot at redemption comes when his faithful manager Joe Gould manages to get him a
bout with a heavyweight contender. Braddock is only boxing because no one else is
available on short notice to take on John “Corn” Griffin. He shocks Griffin and the
boxing world with a knockout victory and two bouts later is fighting for the title against
Baer. Why get into the ring with a man who has already killed two other boxers? “I can
still take a few punches,” he says simply. “Let me take ‘em in the ring. At least I know
who’s hittin’ me.” With the Depression, on the other hand, he was never certain what
forces were conspiring to wreck the economy.
Braddock’s improbable rise to the title bout may sound like “Rocky.” Granted, Russell
Crowe as Braddock occasionally sounds a little like Stallone with a “Joisey,” mick
accent. But whereas “Rocky” has the limited cinematic landscape of the gym, the ring,
the seedy apartment and the streets of Philadelphia, “Cinderella Man” is played out
against the backdrop of the Depression, complete with tenements, fancy hotels, swank
restaurants, a Hooverville in Central Park, Braddock’s parish church, the docks where he
fights each day to be one of the handful of men picked to load ships, the gym and, of
course, the arena. Howard has recreated with a gritty realism the Madison Square Garden
arena in Long Island City where Baer went down by a decision after 15 of the hardest-
fought rounds in the history of boxing. “Rocky” is micro. “Cinderella Man” is macro.
The Director Ron Howard (“A Beautiful Mind,” “Apollo 13”) says he has always had a
thing for the Depression. He even made a short, amateur documentary about it while still a kid. That adolescent interest has served him well here. He never overindulges his
passion for that shock to the American system with preachiness. But he leaves no doubt
about what a life-changing event it was for so many millions of Americans. He never
sacrifices Braddock’s story as he manages to touch on the politics of the day, on the way
conditions challenged the ideal of rugged American individualism and personal
responsibility, and even on how the economic stress of the times took its toll on families
Braddock never complained. It was only when his children had to be sent to the home of
a relative who still had heat and electricity that he hits up men in the boxing business for
a few bucks. It’s heartbreaking to watch him beg. But when that’s not enough to pay the
power bill, only then does he reluctantly apply for government assistance. You just know
it’s killing him to do so. You will ache for the affront to this man’s dignity brought on by
hard times. When we see him in line for relief a second time, after he’s had a nice payday
on his way to the showdown with Baer, it’s hard not to wonder why he’d be going back
for more when he’s no longer truly needy. Are you ready for this? He’s waiting in line so
he can repay the money he received during his most desperate hours.
You might think this is too good to be true, that Ron Howard is following the advice that
John Ford passed along in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance:” When the legend
becomes fact, print the legend. Well, it’s a fact that Braddock paid back to the federal
government a couple of hundred bucks in emergency relief aid. Scriptwriters couldn’t
make up something that good when it comes to telling us who this man was.
Howard has said he’s not too worried about people knowing the triumphal outcome of
“Cinderella Man” before they enter the theatre. After all, he says, everyone knew that
Apollo 13 made it back to earth and that didn’t hurt box office. He’s got a point. He’s
also got a knack for building suspense as Braddock moves toward his greatest night in the
ring. I personally kept thinking he might face a battle with the booze along the way. At
one point he hits a saloon after finally getting a day’s work on the docks. There it goes, I
thought, he’s going to drink the day’s pay like Frank McCourt’s “da” did in “Angela’s
Ashes.” But he doesn’t. He orders water. Then in the locker room before one of the big
comeback bouts his manager Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti) eyes him suspiciously and asks
about his happy mood and if he’s been drinking. No, he hasn’t. He’s just giddy. So much
for that Irish-American stereotype, thank God.
Russell Crowe just keeps getting better. Two of his best movies, this one and “A
Beautiful Mind,” have been made with Howard. Here he captures the pride and
innocence and determination of James Braddock in a way that makes the legend live. I’m
not sure any other actor could have made a real American character like this so
believable. As his loving, supportive wife, Renee Zellweger has the good sense to not
even attempt a New Jersey, Irish-American accent. The love between these two is tender
and enduring. As his manager and corner man Joe Gould, Paul Giamatti finally gets a
role where he’s not playing on the fringes of society as he was in “Sideways” and
“American Splendor.” He makes “Cinderella Man” fun. Especially when he’s taunting
Max Baer and managing to distract him in the ring at just the right moments.
If there’s a weakness with “Cinderella Man” it’s that the boxing sequences are almost too
good. How Braddock could have survived the beatings shown here is a medical miracle.
The movie could use a clinical explanation of how one man endured that much
punishment. And talk about suspense, I figured he might have lived out his days as a
drooling fool after all those headshots. How he does live out his post-boxing life is
covered just before the closing credits. I’d share that information with you, but I don’t
want to spoil all the suspense.
If you only see one more boxing movie this year, make sure it’s “Cinderella Man.” There
may not be another one this good—and that is almost as good as “Million Dollar
Baby”—in a very long time.
Bill Gallagher is the News Director at Newstalk 860 KPAM Radio and the movie
reviewer for BrainstormNW.
BrainstormNW - December 2005