Faith and Film Study Guide for Cinderella Man now available: http://www.daughtersofstpaul.com/mediastudies/reviews/CinderellaManGuide.pdf
It is 1928 and the promising prizefighter Jimmy Braddock (Russell Crowe), the “Bulldog of Bergen” has just won a big fight. His boxing manager Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti) pays him generously and Jimmy goes home to Bergen CountyNew Jersey, to his loving wife Mae (Renee Zellweger) and young family.
In 1929 the stock market crashes and at the same time Jimmy begins losing fights. Many think he is washed up, that he won’t really ever be a great boxer. As America’s economic depression deepens, Jimmy struggles to get work at the docks.
Joe arranges for Jimmy to fight in a preliminary match for which he will be paid $50.00, win or lose. He loses badly, and the boxing promoter refuses to pay him and revokes his license to box. When Jimmy gets home he discovers that Mae has sent the children away to different relatives to be cared for. He is so angry that he finally admits he needs help and goes on the dole in order to bring the children home.
The depression had turned life grim for millions who live in clapboard shacks in parks, streets and alleys called “Hoovervilles”(named for President Herbert Hoover whose administration from 1929 to 1933 ushered in the Great Depression.) When Jimmy’s friend Mike (Paddy Considine) goes missing, Jimmy searches for him in such a place.
In 1934 Joe Gould arranges for Jimmy to fight Corn Griffin and unexpectedly wins – mostly because of the hook he developed while working at the docks with a broken hand. Over the next few months, Jimmy wins fight after fight until he is set to meet the world champion, Max Baer (Craig Bierko) in the ring for the world heavyweight title. Jimmy begins to symbolize hope for those who are down on their luck, out of work, and homeless. Baer has no respect for his smaller, older opponent.
Jimmy Braddock made history on the night of June 13, 1935, when he boxed Baer for all fifteen rounds and then won by unanimous decision at the Madison Square Garden Bowl. That night the famous American writer and journalist, Damon Runyon, called James J. Braddock the “Cinderella Man” because of his fairy-tale return to success as a boxer.
As I left the theater after seeing Cinderella Man, I said to myself: If the Academy Awards were held tomorrow, this film would sweep all the major categories. It is extremely well-acted in a fine, understated way. The texture of the film creates the historical period so we feel the poverty, the despair as well as excitement and hope.
Director Ron Howard has done it again. Along with Akiva Goldman, co-writing with Cliff Hollingsworth, they are proving themselves masters of the biopic.
On the subject of boxing itself, I would like to quote two of my friends, one a film critic, the other a director, whom I queried in view of writing about Cinderella Man. Personally, I don’t like boxing, and I struggle with the morality of the sport. Be that as it may, here iswhat my friends had to say:
James M. Wall is the senior contributing editor for Christian Century magazine and a critic and teacher of film and religion:
“One way to approach films about boxing is to consider that in films like Raging Bull and Cinderella Man, the directors employ boxing as a stage for the story pretty much the way Patton and Mash employed war. The boxing is the metaphor, albeit a rather graphic metaphor, of struggle and growth. Then, of course, there is the use of boxing, as the Rocky series, to present a rather superficial story of the good guy beating the bad guy.
”As a critic, I judge the boxing metaphor in terms of how it is used, to exploit the so-called sport or to explore struggle and growth, and in some cases, redemption, and sacrifice. I do not like the sport of boxing any more than I like the reality of war; but both brutal exchanges have their codes of conduct and their styles which, in their context, can be admired. Jim Braddock, whom Crowe portrays in the Cinderella Man, was a hero of mine when I was a very young child. (I was seven when Braddock fought Max Baer.) But it was radio, not television, which reported the fights to me then, so I was spared the brutality of the actual boxing experience.
”Joe Louis was also a hero to me. Both Braddock and Louis were men who overcame limited backgrounds to achieve something of significance in the field of endeavor they chose. Scorcese managed to give us more graphic boxing material through which to relate his vision of growth in Raging Bull by the use of slow motion and background music which suggested something of the style of the sport, and in a strange sort of way, the “beauty” of the encounters.
”It all comes down not to the subject matter but to the manner in which the subject matter is employed by the film maker. It is not what the film is about, but what it is, that counts.”
Charles Robert Carner is a director (Judas, Vanishing Point):
“My brother was a boxer. Those who like it love it. Those who don’t, it can’t be explained to them. They call boxing ‘The Sweet Science’ because at its best it is not about who is physically stronger – it’s about who is smarter, and has the greater heart. There is nothing else in life like facing a man in single combat and defeating him. At the risk of sounding like the Neanderthal throwback, it is what makes us men. Girls don’t understand. Men must have physical courage. They must be able to defend their wives and children from predators. Boxing provides a ritualized form of that test of manhood in a way that nothing else really does.”
I also interviewed a female boxer named Suswella Roberts. She is young woman from Los Angeles in her 20’s. She began boxing at the age of seven to soothe the pain of her father’s early death. She boxed until high school when her mother told her she had to think about her future. She was a premed student in college and obtained a B.S. in Mathematics. But the idea of boxing came back to her and she is now a professionally ranked welterweight. Suswella thinks that boxing is “a metaphor for the Christian life and spirituality.”
Suswella does not believe that boxing is about violence but about strategy, science, and calculation. Her motto is, “Stop them and win, not hurt them.” She prays that God will use her as his tool: “Give me the strength to win, the discipline to run and train, to be celibate and to give me the courage to engage in the struggle.” Suswella also believes that as a celebrity now she has a responsibility to children, to be a good example for them because children are the future.
Whatever your take on boxing, Cinderella Man, while conventional cinematic story-telling, is a wonderfully crafted film and well worth seeing. The way it evokes reflection on what it means to be a man and a woman who struggle to survive together with their children makes it true art.
Later today hopefully, when the site is ready, I will post a link later for a Study Guide I wrote on the film for REEL SPIRITUALITY (Fuller Theological Seminary) on Cinderella Man.