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Cinderella Man movie doesn't cut it
Seabiscuit in boxing gloves

Review by Dave Zirin | June 24, 2005 | Page 13

Cinderella Man, directed by Ron Howard, starring Russell Crowe and Renée Zellweger.

"WHEN OUR country was on its knees, he brought America to his feet." So goes the tagline for Ron Howard's Depression-era boxing film Cinderella Man starring Russell Crowe.

Cinderella Man has been compared to Seabiscuit, both stories of plucky sports underdogs that triumphed during the Great Depression. The comparison is apt, and not just because Crowe's James J. Braddock mopes around with the same blank hangdog expression as that horse.

Like the insipid Seabiscuit, the entire big budget biopic comes off as yet another Hollywood effort to sweeten the story of the 1930s. And like Seabiscuit, Cinderella Man sees the Depression as a time for beautifully photographed poverty, and, in the words of reviewer Jami Bernard, "good for teaching values."

Beyond that, all one would learn from Cinderella Man is that the Great Depression was really depressing.

In reality, the 1930s was a time of not only poverty but also mass resistance, as strikes swept the South and shut down the cities of San Francisco, Toledo, Ohio, and Minneapolis. It was a time when many of the reforms on the chopping block today, like Social Security, were won in struggle.

It was a time when revolution in the U.S. was on the table as hundreds of thousands of people attempted to offer an alternative to the barbarisms of capitalism. As Depression-era sports writer Lester Rodney put it, "In the 1930s, if you weren't some kind of radical, Communist, socialist, or Trotskyist, you were considered brain-dead, and you probably were!"

Just about everyone in Cinderella Man wears their brain-deadness like a medal of honor, passively enduring poverty as if they had just received red, white and blue lobotomies.

The only hint of the other side of the Depression in Cinderella Man is Braddock's dockworker buddy Mike Wilson (played by Paddy Considine). Mike believes in the power of protest, but he's also portrayed as a drunk who gets the speech from his wife where she says, "You can save the world, but not your family!"

Renée Zellweger, as Crowe's spouse Mae, complements Mike's wife, as the typical sexist sports-movie female character, fretting with every fight and being forced to say lines like, "You are the champion of my heart, James J. Braddock!"

The film is also shamefully simplistic and even slanderous in its portrayal of the heavyweight champion at the time Max Baer. Baer was a hulking, brutal fighter who had two opponents die in the ring.
But Cinderella Man reduces Baer to a one-dimensional stock villain, a perfect counterpart for Crowe's paper-thin stock hero. As played by Craig Bierko, Baer struts around with a psychotic gleam in his eye, as if he would enjoy nothing more than killing Braddock and spitting on his grave. In one scene, he looks at Mae and says, "Nice! Too bad she'll be a widow."

In reality, Baer was devastated and nearly destroyed by the ring deaths that occurred at his hands, as any non-sociopath would be.

Also, Baer was a complex figure who fought against the Nazi favorite Max Schmeling with a Star of David embroidered on his trunks. To see Howard's movie, one would think the only symbol Baer favored would be a pentagram.

But the real tragedy of the film is its treatment of Braddock. Crowe does what he can with a terrible script, but it says everything about the film that it closes before the actual ending of Braddock's fight career, a 1937 8th round knockout at the hands of Joe Louis.

Louis, the first African American heavyweight champ since Jack Johnson, was a symbol of hope for both African Americans and the left wing of the radicalizing working class.

To have portrayed his fight with Braddock would have meant dealing with complex issues of how boxing, in a violent society, has acted as a deeply symbolic morality play about the ability of people--especially people of color--to succeed and stand triumphant.

It would have meant trying to understand why some people who would have rooted for the underdog Braddock against Baer, would have bitterly opposed him against Louis.

But the filmmakers could care less about these complicated dimensions of either the period or the sport. Their job in Cinderella Man is to take complex characters and turn them into stick figures, easily consumed and easily forgotten.

At that task, they have succeeded admirably.

[For people really interested in the James J. Braddock story, read the just-released Jeremy Schaap book also called Cinderella Man‚ and--blessedly--not connected to the film.]

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