But Braddock’s right is now accompanied by a longshoreman’s left and a proud man’s need to provide for his family. As Braddock later says in an interview, “Now I know what I’m fighting for.” His win over Griffin puts him on a course to meet champion Max Baer, who has already killed two boxers by “dislocating their brains.”
The fight scenes are gritty and exciting, often seen from Crowe’s blurred perspective as he lopes around the ring and grins through his mouthguard. But Crowe and the movie’s writers Akiva Goldman and Cliff Hollingsworth commendably and tenderly make Braddock into a family man who is a fighter, not a fighter with a family.
In between fights, Crowe shares surprising, sweet, funny moments with all three children and Mae—bright spots in lives lived just blocks from the bread line and mere miles from Hooverville. Crowe and Zellweger share moments of love, heat and desperation born from a shared fight for their family. Zellweger, one of few actresses who takes the time and energy to nail any accent she’s handed, gives humor and vigor to what could have been a bland, stand-by-your-man routine. Instead of sacrificing the female character to make a statement about the lack of women’s rights, as many period films do, “Cinderella Man” gives Zellweger a chance to be a complex and powerful woman without shortchanging history.
The bare lightbulbs, dirty snow, and patched clothing paint a vivid picture of 1930s America. You can hear the bleachers creak at Madison Square Garden and almost taste the hash Braddock eats as his pre-bout meal.
This story has been told before—an underdog athlete who embodies the hopes and dreams of a down-on-its-luck community in an unlikely bid for an unlikely championship. But James J. Braddock lived it—the American sports story. And he earned the right to have the story told again, this time for him, and told well. “Cinderella Man” does that.