The crowd of 35,000 sits in silence as James Braddock makes his way down the aisle for his title shot against the heavyweight champion of the world. As he steps into the ring, a piercing cry comes from deep in the darkness.
“You can do it, Jimmy!”
A wave of emotion breaks and crashes into cheers for the underdog.
Cinderella Man is director Ron Howard’s tribute to one of the best men ever to lace on gloves and to the character of the men and women who held families together and never lost their love of country at a time when it seemed like the country had failed them. This wonderful film is what movies can be again.
Cinderella Man has been mocked as “Seabiscuit with boxing gloves.” Do not believe it. The casting — Russell Crowe as James Braddock, Renee Zellweger as his wife, Mae, Paul Giamatti as the loyal, savvy, witty, gutsy manager Jay Gould, and Craig Bierko as an amoral and sadistic Max Baer — and acting are superb.
The story is that of Braddock, a contender in the late 1920s before the stock market crash wiped him out and a busted right hand caused so dismal a performance in a fight he lost his license to box.
Desperate, Braddock gets work on the Hoboken docks. But as the electricity to his basement flat is cut off and his kids are sent to live with relatives, the fighter to whom family is all puts his pride aside and, a cap hooding his eyes, goes to the welfare office to stand in line with the beaten men of his time to get his $19 in relief.
Through it all, Braddock never loses his decency, never curses his fate, never despairs. He accepts the hand God has dealt him and is thankful for the blessings he has: a loving and adoring wife and kids. Jimmy and Mae do not need to talk to communicate what they think and feel as the Depression begins to defeat them. Their faces and expressions speak the words.
Seemingly down and out for good, Braddock gets his break. Though he has not fought for a year, Gould wangles him an offer of $250 to fight in Madison Square Garden the next night in place of a boxer who had to drop out of the preliminary to the Max Baer-Primo Carnera championship bout.
As Braddock walks toward the ring, a cynical reporter dictates the opening line of next day’s story, “The last time Braddock was seen on his feet was when he came down the aisle.” But Braddock wins with a startling KO, and the comeback begins. As money comes in, he returns to the window of the relief office and hands the same lady a roll of bills to pay back all that his family had been given.
These were the values the Jimmy Braddocks were taught. These were the values by which so many in our parents’ generation lived. This was how they acted, and they did not think it heroic. When a reporter asks at a press conference about his returning the relief money, Braddock says simply: “This is a great country, a country that helps a man when he is in trouble. I thought I should return it.”
Men and women like the James and Mae Braddock of this film were the products of homes, schools, churches and parishes, and Howard’s depiction of the community that produced them marks this as one of the most pro-Catholic films Hollywood has produced since the 1940s Bing Crosby-Ingrid Bergman classic, The Bells of St. Mary’s.
Howard is unrelenting in his depiction of the grim and gritty Hoovervilles and what they did to families, and his portrayal underscores the nobility of those who endured it.
Among criticisms of the film is that it does an injustice to Baer, who is portrayed as a loutish womanizer who revels in his reputation as a ring killer for having beaten a fighter to death and so punished another he died early in his next bout. As boxing writer Bert Sugar recounts, Baer was no angel — he lost fights for fouling — and he had “a killer punch,” one of the best in boxing history, but he began to hold it back after beating Ernie Campbell to death.
Yet, as a villainous Baer, Bierko is outstanding. He even looks like Max Baer, a man bigger than Braddock, who had fought as a light heavyweight.
Late in the film, as Mae finally realizes her Jimmy is going to fight the killer Baer, no matter how she pleads, she hugs him, and says, “You’re the Bulldog of Bergen, the Pride of New Jersey, you’re everybody’s hope, you’re your kids’ hero and the champion of my heart.” It is among the most moving moments of any film you will ever see. See it.