New-Release Tuesday: Cinderella Man

Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.

Cinderella Man is the movie that Seabiscuit wanted to be. Or the one that so many critics claimed that Seabiscuit was, when it really wasn’t. This one really does show us a side of humanity, a side of the specifically American and yet universal experience, that Seabiscuit could only tell us about in voice-over.

Both movies take place during the Great Depression and the years leading up to the Second World War. Both movies are about the triumph of unlikely underdog heroes. But Seabiscuit’s story was literally lifted from the pages of history, trimmed, cleaned of all the unpleasant interwoven messiness that characterized those very dark times, and sanitizingly mythologized. It asked us to believe that a horse and a jockey were what gave the American people sustaining hope.

Cinderella Man also mythologizes the Depression. Any mere movie must do so, given the period’s extraordinary complexity. But director Ron Howard’s mythologizing is at least contextualized and satisfyingly dramatized. He shows us that, yes, the American people did champion heroes like Seabiscuit and boxer James J. Braddock because they demonstrated the potential of the discarded and the disenfranchised. But Howard also gives us at least a sense of the global forces that came to bear on American politics and labor relations; he shows us the hardscrabble existence of the literal masses who were so busy surviving that they couldn’t possibly have cared about race tracks or boxing matches; he paints a picture of a nation, embodied in a single family, struggling to keep its faith in the face of endlessly closed doors, empty stomachs and no prospects for work. In short, Cinderella Man earns a place alongside great depression-era films like The Grapes of Wrath and Bound for Glory.

But Cinderella Man doesn’t preach, either. It still works on the level of gentle dramas of the period such as Steven Soderbergh’s King of the Hill. Sure, the true story of Braddock’s riches-to-rags-and-back-again career is compelling enough in its own right. But the real power of Howard’s rendition of the story, and Russell Crowe’s performance as Braddock, lies not in the inevitably predictable and triumphant boxing scenes but in a series of very real, quiet human moments—moments that portray the universal struggle for dignity and peace.

The first of these moments comes when Braddock and his wife, played by Renee Zellweger, find their family of five literally down to their last half-bottle of milk. Howard’s subtle visual composition tells us that the Braddocks do have options; they don’t live in vacuum. But right or wrong, they don’t ask for help, and they don’t help themselves to what’s not theirs. They tighten their belts and remain true to their principles, as tough as that may be. The remaining milk is mixed with water and the hope for a better tomorrow.

Later, one of Braddock’s sons violates the family code of self-respect by lifting a salami from the local butcher. But this is not an occasion for mere lesson-learning. Yes, Braddock sternly takes his son by the arm to personally return the stolen meat to its owner; but Braddock knows the hunger and desperation that has driven his son to such an act, and he makes a promise to his son that he knows he will have a hard time keeping. Discipline meets compassion in a truly loving fashion.

Braddock himself, after all, knows the same hunger and desperation. Even before a boxing match, he goes without a meal so that his children can have a rare second helping. And when the worst of times comes, Braddock, like most of us, finds himself “all prayed out.” Faith is just a nice idea until its tested; but when the testing comes in force, it sometimes seems more than we can bear—though, of course, it never is.

Finally Braddock learns the lesson of contextualization. He learns that no man—no family, no nation—is an island. He learns the hard lesson of humility, even humiliation. To keep his family, to keep that hard promise to his son, he must ask for help. He finds that sometimes the most hard-earned dignity and self-respect is the most precious. The only principle that he must sacrifice to survive is the illusion of independence.

And in the end, Braddock learns—no, Ron Howard has the genius and sense to show us—that the heart of human existence is not in the glory of boxing titles. Neither is it in the pathos of the Hoovervilles, the well-intentioned championing of political causes nor the nation-building exercises of countries struggling to find meaning, peace or prosperity. The whole wealth and breadth of human experience may just be found in what we do with a simple bottle of milk.

Cinderella Man is now included with your Hulu subscription. You can also stream at YouTube.