“I’m not the first guy willing to die to feed his family.”-Jim Braddock
Movies about sports have a stranglehold on many hearts and when done right, they can truly move the soul. In the land of competition, many people see themselves out there. Swinging for the fences, shooting the puck at the net or throwing that hail mary pass to the end zone. In boxing, the feeling is no less. We all get into a ring daily and fight our way through our lives trying to make good on our promise. It’s a romantic sports connection that make films like The Cinderella Man, Ron Howard’s 2005 feel good classic resonate to this day. The true tale is a standing testament to the power of the spirit and the will to keep fighting even though life throws the harder punches.
If you care to know who the real Rocky Balboa was before Sylvester Stallone was even born, look no further than James J. Braddock. The legendary fighter, who put a city on his shoulders in the Great Depression, was down and out after the financial crisis wiped away all his stocks and earnings. He was a beaten down fighter who held on for dear life in the ring and kept going even though his body was breaking down. At his wits end and without hope, Braddock was determined to keep his fighting days alive and providing for his family fueled that desire. He got a fight last minute and won, which eventually led to a heavyweight showdown with renowned and revered champion Max Baer.
Russell Crowe created an unforgettable Braddock and Renee Zellweger, in one of his last great roles before fading away, was truly heroic and superb as his wife Mae. Paul Giamatti offered fine support as the boxer’s trainer Joe Gould and Craig Bierko was the imposing Baer. The cast also included Paddy Considine as Braddock’s friend and Rosemarie DeWitt(the real life granddaughter of Braddock). In order to pull off a great story, you have to get the right cast.
Now there are some issues people had with the story. Max Baer’s son was furious that they made his dad out to be a goon when in real life he didn’t feel good about killing men in the ring or wasn’t a monstrous bully. Howard and his writers took cinematic liberties there, and I can handle that. If you are going to make a movie for 100 million dollars, one must do what a studio wants. I can tell you with 100 percent clarity that the studio wanted to craft this truly underdog tale and making Baer the antagonist was part of the deal. He was a boxer so it isn’t like they were turning him into a terrorist. I can respect the beef Baer’s son had with the representation of his father but I can handle it in a cinematic production.
The reason the film was great was because Howard and company put its focus on the effect of the Great Depression had on so many families. Paddy Considine’s character, Mike, a dock worker who worked and befriended Braddock, was a perfect example of the blue collar class who suffered so mightily. The hardship of the Depression wasn’t just the financial strain and hunger it created but that fact that it left so many families powerless. Mike was a bigger victim than Braddock because he wasn’t a prize fighter who could make 250 dollars in one night. The Great Depression gutted millions of families and was the cause for many deaths and demoralization of the country. At one point, Braddock had to go to Madison Square Garden to beg his former employers for money so he could turn his heat on and get his three kids back in the house from Mae’s sisters.
Braddock’s story is truly inspirational and the fact that it really happened only made the movie that much better. Those were the days of true boxers, men who were tough as nails and hard to defeat. In a day and age where the sweet science of boxing has taken over the ring and brawls are more rare, it is important to go back to a day and age where the two types of fights(brawls and true boxing duels) merged into war in a ring. Braddock’s win over Baer was phenomenal because of the boxer’s story and hardship.
It was Crowe’s last truly great Oscar worthy performance. He nailed the boxing rhythm and voice of Braddock and suffered a few concussions in the fight scenes. He gave himself truly to the performance and it can be noticed when watching the film. Zellweger was fantastic, embodying the strength of a woman forced to wait at home and wonder if her man would come home whole again. This was the Jerry Maguire and Cold Mountain Renee and not the departed actress we know today. It goes to show you that sometimes the role suits the actor more than the actor suits the role.
Last but not least, the music of Thomas Newman was superb. Newman is my favorite composer because his music can pull me from another room into the living room once I hear his music. It doesn’t matter if it’s the sentimental first moments of Finding Nemo, the rugged dark areas of Road to Perdition and American Beauty or the old fashioned feel of Cinderella Man. The slow piano clicks and the following swell of the orchestra work wonders in this heroic tale. I can never get enough of Newman’s notes.
The movie only grossed 50 million and was wrongly released in the summer instead of the more award worthy months of November and December. That hurt its chances of bringing home Oscars but to me, 9 years later, it resonates just as much as when I saw it in the theater. While the true story isn’t as faithful as it should be, Cinderella Man is a truly great movie and one that can inspire hope for any person needing a lift.