They say everyone loves to root for the underdog. They say that everyone loves a comeback. People are naturally drawn to the possibility of impossibilities. It’s the inspiration for a lot of stories, particularly fiction or fantasy. But there are the times when even the most absurd stories of triumph come inspired by real acts of valor, determination, or commitment. And those stories can be passed down to generations in the most unlikely of places. For me, it came during my sophomore year in high school during U.S. History class, where I was first introduced to Cinderella Man.
Set four years into the Great Depression, a span of history where Americans struggled with a horrific stock market that left hundreds of thousands in poverty, a man named James Braddock is an up and coming boxer who was on top of the world prior to the Depression. He was wealthy beyond his desires and had the support of his agent, his wife, and three children. Years later, like most, the Depression left him without a lot of room to breathe. He went through each day hungry, struggling to pay the bills or find any work, and in constant fear for the well being of his family. On top of that, injuries derailed his boxing career to the point where his potential talent was all but wasted. Cinderella Man, more than anything, is a story of Braddock’s redemption and his fight against all that life throws at him.
Allow me to shed light on my feelings for this movie immediately by stating that this is, after three watches, my favorite movie I’ve seen thus far. It ranks up there with childhood favorites such as Willy Wonka and Star Wars as a film I always look forward to watching, whether alone or with company by my side. What I find so humorous about this is that I had to watch this movie for an assignment at school, rather than for my own interests. It became something I looked forward to with each passing day (classes were only forty-five minutes long)—not for the sake of completing my assignment, but to gaze upon the miraculous tale of James Braddock.
What amazes me most about this movie is the use of such a tired cliché of an underdog against the world and embracing it to tell a well-crafted and specifically detailed interpretation of a real man’s life. Every scene within this movie feels important to the bigger picture that this movie is trying to tell, that the human spirit is as large and contagious as those prevalent in the most ridiculous of fantasies. To be able to push the boundaries of what one single message can do to not feel overstayed through the course of a two-hour film amazes me to no end, but it’s the benefit of a strong style of storytelling and pacing that really shines in Cinderella Man.
However, this type of structure can feel uninspired to some. As is traditional in stories like this, it begins with the outset to disaster; a scenario when the title character is better off, and their future looks bright and stable, only to come crashing down by a certain event. This leads them to continue to toil downward into a pit they can’t escape from, showing them at their lowest before resorting to what their pride dissuaded them from doing prior. It is only then that their path begins to change for the better, setting in place the shift in tone from pitiful existence to a phoenix-like reincarnation to their former glory. Cinderella Man does not change from this, but offers just enough foundation for other minor sub-plots to make it feel not quite as one-dimensional. This is shown most evidently by the emphasis of the Great Depression and what it can do for those outside of the title character and their core group of cast members. These sub-plots and more give deeper meaning to the scope of what an underdog story like Braddock’s can do for everyone, even if only on a figurative level.
Ron Howard’s directing style typically exudes a level of intellectual prowess that reflects the influence emotions have on characters and their dilemmas. It’s not surprising that a director like Howard is able to make a story such as this one so emotionally poignant. But what says more than this level of intimacy with the characters is the amount of characters he tries to give any sense of detail to. Just about every character, no matter how small of an impact they have in the movie, gets fleshed out to some degree, even if that only includes them standing tall when Braddock does or cheer for the one worth cheering for. Characters that could have easily been ignored, such as Braddock’s kids, wife, or his coworkers on his occasional dock job, have their own merit to the importance to the movie, whether to stand individually as a person of interest or better evoke the message of the movie. It doesn’t have many holes to fill with such a safe voyage, but it doesn’t really feel like this movie has any particularly weak points in its story or characters. They’re caressed well, through and through, despite their amount of screentime.
Unfortunately, there is one thing with certain characters that only add to the simplicity of a story like this. This comes in two forms in Cinderella Man: one in the form of Max Baer, a young and cocky boxer with loads of talent, the other with Mike Wilson, a friend Braddock makes down on a shift at the docks. These two are examples of characters only given importance due to better influencing the moral. They aren’t necessarily fleshed out or given realistic qualities, rather suited for creating conflict or a more somber tone to better the course for future drama. You don’t feel the same empathy for these characters that one might would for Braddock or his family. They’re shown more as cogs in the machine of tragedy that the setting of the film loves to embellish. Baer is the antagonist with very few good qualities, which only gives reason to have Braddock’s figure of justice better shine through. Wilson is an accumulation of what the Depression can do to the psyche of a man struggling to cope with the pressure of supporting a family on top of themselves. His friendship with Braddock is quick and the two never feel particularly close, even by the end of the film. Even so, his impact is good for better development of the film’s darker moments.
The one genuine flaw I can gracefully describe with this movie is one that could be debated upon tremendously. The character of James Braddock is too perfect. I would assume the biggest argument for this is that should Braddock not be an upstanding man, he wouldn’t really suit the “underdog” role as well as he does. This is completely understandable from an analytical standpoint, but not a realistic, humanity standpoint that the film tries to craft with the other characters in the film. The claim that Braddock is too perfect could also be debated, as one could say he’s too prideful, too stubborn, too caught up in his own way of doing things. I say his moral reasons for being all of those things are for his upstanding, God-like conscience, one easy enough to be one to stand behind. I would argue that the film would feel more realistic and more emotionally impressive should he also deal with an ongoing struggle that would provide for a reason to hesitate with viewing Braddock as a heavenly figure. To make him more human. Whether his perfection is better suited for the role he plays in the film or a subjective flaw of my own design would make for an interesting conversation.
A bias on my part may be my dormant love for boxing, but I found the fights of the movie incredibly moving. The way they’re choreographed are well adjusted for emotional impact and to show the physicality of the sport. One should only wonder how fifteen rounds of beating the hell out of another with all their might can only leave one with a black eye and a scraped lip, but I suppose there is a lot of time between fights. My favorite scene comes from a fight in which Braddock experiences all that he’s fighting for after a crushing punch from his opponent knocks his mouthguard out of him. It’s this scene and more that give weight to the thrill of competitive sports and what they could mean for those taking part. Some despise boxing for being a meandering love for violence and chaos, but it could mean a lot more to others, especially those fighting for their families, their home, their people, or their own love of the game. In Braddock’s case, his fight exceeds that of his own will, but transcends to the fight all Americans face during the Great Depression, another example of the movie fitting well with every part it inserts into the narrative.
In terms of acting, there isn’t any particular character who I felt did a poor job. There were a few times when I found myself a little bemused by Renée Zellweger’s crying, but otherwise I thought the performances were entirely believable and easily immersible. Paul Giamatti has received a lot of love for his performance as Braddock’s agent, and I can definitely see why. His energy, enthusiasm, and sharp tongue makes him an immensely likable character, perhaps the best character in the entire movie. Even in more dramatic scenes he reels back his emotions and gives reason to believe his humanity is being shown with his concern for Braddock’s well-being and discarding his own. One of my favorite lines in the movie is an insult to Giamatti’s character, told that his “mouth should be put in a circus.” The side characters provide solid performances and allow the movie to progress along smoothly in whatever fashion it chooses to.
The soundtrack to Cinderella Man is not one used very often, usually settling for the sounds of everyday ambiance to set the mood of a particular scene. However, when it does come into play, they use it for only the most emotionally provocative scenes, giving glamour to a keen sense of drama. In times of turmoil, times of anticipation—a grueling game of patience is among the most common of the soundtrack picking up. The pickiness of the soundtrack’s presence does wonders for the importance of the scenes it does provide support to. Too often movies try to incorporate music in every scene to try and dig up emotionally feedback, but using it effectively knows when and when not to use it. Cinderella Man has that tendency down to a science, with silent scenes being more impactful because of that silence, and those corrupt with noise deliver chills when that noise gives way to a sultry sonnet of stringed instruments. The scenes are marvelous without it—and better in the most trying of moments.
Amazing as it is to me that such a basic story structure can provide so much for me, Cinderella Man provided many others with a vigor like those following in Braddock’s footsteps. It is a feel-good story about a trying time in American history and the effort one man made to survive it. The directing, acting, and attention to detail make this movie one of few to give me that clamor of excitement even when I know what’s about to unfold before me. One could find a few things here and there to complain about, but to me, Cinderella Man is an experience best served with the context of the events happening within, provided by their weight to a cast of characters worth caring about. I’m certainly glad I paid attention during U.S. History.
Final Score: 9.5/10