3 June 2005 | lavatch
James J. Braddock: Gladiator of the Great Depression
"Cinderella Man" deserves to be placed alongside other great biographical films dealing with the lives and times of great boxers. Such films include "Raging Bull," "The Joe Louis Story," "Ali," "The Hurricane," and "Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story."
These films share in common not just a documentary-like approach to boxing or a superficial biopic. They also portray the human side of a modern gladiator and the culture that produced him. In the case of "Cinderella Man," we are given a detailed and heart-rending portrait of the Great Depression in American. The story of the gentleman pugilist James J. Braddock is the backdrop to the larger drama of Americans' struggle in the 1930s.
Russell Crowe provides a brilliant interpretation of Braddock, capturing the decency of a man whose career as a boxer would appear to have peaked at just the wrong time prior to the Crash of 1929. After that momentous event, Braddock's boxing went into decline just like the lives of millions of Americans. The scenes of Braddock and his family living in squalid conditions and with uncertainty about such basics as heat and electricity were carefully developed in the film. Renée Zellweger was outstanding as Mae, the caring but feisty wife of Braddock. Paul Giamatti was also excellent as Braddock's handler-manager, Joe Gould. Joe tries to keep up appearances by sporting fancy clothes. But in one revealing scene in the film when we see the interior of Joe's ostensibly swanky apartment, there is no fancy furniture other than a dowdy table and some flimsy deck chairs. Everyone is reeling from the Depression. In the depiction of the massive unemployment, the "Hoovervilles" of the homeless residing in Central Park, and the desperate need for Americans for an optimistic icon like Braddock to raise their spirits, the film truly captured the tragedy of the Great American Depression.
The film's director Ron Howard emphasized close-ups throughout the film with uneven results. In many of the boxing sequences, the close-ups and rapid editing made it difficult tell the fighters apart. The close-ups continued even into the domestic scenes and the outdoor sequences depicting Braddock working as a longshoreman. The film's dark cinematography conveyed the bleakness of the Depression years, but it worked against bringing out the buoyant spirit of Braddock himself and the optimism that he instilled in others. As a director, Howard's strength is not in film artistry or technique. As apparent in this and other films, his gift lies in narrative storytelling and the development of dramatic character.
Indeed, the characters and the story were the strong points of "Cinderella Man." Much credit should go to Cliff Hollingsworth for a screenplay that included thoughtful dialogue, humor, and multi-dimensional characters. Daniel Orlandi also merits praise for the brilliant costumes that helped to recreate the period of the early 1930s.
But the heart of this film experience is Russell Crowe's screen portrayal of Braddock. It was the colorful sportswriter and raconteur Damon Runyan who coined the nickname of "Cinderella Man" for Braddock. However, the real James J. Braddock was more than lucky. It was his strength of character in and out of the ring that captivated America. One of the most moving scenes of the film was a heated argument between Braddock and his wife Mae where Braddock insists that even in the most difficult of times, he would refuse to be separated from his children. As a boxer, he was fearless. But he demonstrated even more courage in fighting for family valuesa lesson from which we can learn a great deal today in reflecting on this sensitive film.