For misery does not come from the earth, nor does trouble sprout from the ground; but human beings are born to trouble just as sparks fly upward. “As for me, I would seek God, and to God I would commit my cause. He does great things and unsearchable, marvelous things without number. He gives rain on the earth and sends waters on the fields; he sets on high those who are lowly, and those who mourn are lifted to safety. He frustrates the devices of the crafty, so that their hands achieve no success…So the poor have hope, and injustice shuts its mouth.
No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.
1 Corinthians 10:12-13
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross
Critics have often remarked that it is difficult to portray goodness on the screen, which is why the villains in the Superman or Batman movies are more interesting than the wooden heroes. Russell Crowe shows what a consummate actor he is in his portrayal of Depression era boxer Jim Braddock, who regarded himself as a family man first and a boxer second, even when he was at the height of his fame. Braddock is no St. Francis—after all, the object of his profession is to beat on another human being until he is incapable of carrying on—but he is free of the old Irishman’s curse of alcoholism and dotes on his wife and three children. Later on he is even spotted in the relief line, this time not to ask for money, but to pay back what was given him earlier—but we are getting ahead of our story.
In 1928 James Braddock has amassed a series of knockout victories. The New York sportswriters predict that soon he will earn his chance at the heavyweight title championship. Then suddenly the screen titles tell us it is the summer of 1933, deep into the Depression. Braddock had once brought home over eight hundred dollars in cash, his purse for the night. This had enabled the family to live in a comfortable colonial house in their native New Jersey, but now we see them barely existing in a slum apartment. They are unable to afford enough food, and soon the power company sends a man to turn off their electricity because of nonpayment of bills. Braddock stands amidst a mob at the gate of a Hoboken dock in the forlorn hope of being chosen to handle cargo. What has happened to the man whose future held so much promise?
Subsequent scenes reveal that Braddock had lost all his stock investments when the market crashed in 1929, and that too often he had fought while injured. Both he and his manager Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti) needed the small purses to keep going. This has led to a series of fights in which Braddock had performed so poorly that when he fought his last fight with a broken hand, the boxing commission revoked his license. Matters grow so grim at home that their eldest son tries to steal some salami from the local butcher shop. In a beautiful scene that could stand as a model for fathers, Jim takes his son to the shop to return the stolen meat and to apologize to the owner. Outside the shop, instead of whipping him, as accepted child-raising practices would have approved, he talks to the boy. “No matter what happens, we don’t steal,” he says. Sensing that the boy was fearful that he and his sister and brother would be sent away to live with relatives who could afford to feed them, as the neighbors had done, Braddock adds, “And I promise you, I will never send you away!”
But that is exactly what his wife Mae does without consulting him. The power is off, the December cold has contributed to the illness of two of their children, and even bundling the hungry children up in blankets fails to protect them from the cold. When Braddock returns from working on the docks, he is furious that the children are gone. Filled with guilt and swallowing his pride, he stands in line at the Relief office to ask for welfare money. Still far short of having enough cash to pay what is owed to the power company, he goes hat in hand to the parlor at Madison Square Garden where his boxing associates congregate. Haltingly he explains his situation and asks for help. Silence at first, during which we sense his humiliation—much like the mother asking for financial help in Angela’s Ashes (but this, we want to say, is America, and not Ireland!)—and then, one by one, the hardboiled men chip in, mostly in coin and small bills. When Jim comes to his former manager Joe, the latter adds in what is still needed. Next we are treated to the joyous scene of the Braddocks all together again.
Matters are still tough for the family when Joe shows up with an offer Jim cannot refuse. A title contender needs an opponent for a fight in a few days because the boxer he was supposed to fight has dropped out, and no other boxer is available on such short notice. It will be a one-time affair that pays what seems like to Jim the huge sum of $250. Mae, who had agonized so over the danger to Jim that she had never attended one of his fights, is not thrilled, but Jim accepts. All he is expected to do is show up and try to go for a few rounds before being beaten.
Despite the lack of time for training, Jim discovers that his work on the dock, when he had to favor his broken right hand, had allowed for the development of his left hand. To the astonishment of all, including himself, he wins the bout. Joe meets with promoter Jimmy Johnston (Bruce McGill) and argues with him about allowing Jim to be reinstated as a licensed boxer. His convincing argument is that they both know what boxing is really about, “and it isn’t pugilism.” There follows a string of striking victories that catches the attention of the press, and through them, the attention of the nation. The story thus follows in the tradition of Seabiscuit, people beaten down by the Depression rooting for another underdog to become a winner. It is then that famed writer Damon Runyon pens the moniker that James Braddock has become known as ever since, the Cinderella Man.
With Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby such a recent success, it might seem that there is no room for another boxing film. But this is not the case with director Ron Howard and writers Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman’s film. It moves in a very different direction—as we observed, aiming at the audience’s desire to root for a seemingly hopeless underdog.
Renee Zellweger is given the thankless role of Mae Braddock, who stands by her man but then tries to stand in his way when her husband earns the opportunity to challenge the reigning champion Max Baer (Craig Bierko). Who can blame her, the cocky champ having killed in the ring two of his opponents? Thus we are set up for a climactic ring battle that rivals that of that champion underdog film of all time, Rocky. I can sympathize with those who will stay away from the film because they hate boxing—I too think it should be regarded as the last vestige of the brutal Roman gladiatorial battles and ought to be outlawed—and yet this sport has given a long line of outsiders (societal underdogs) a ticket out of the slums or ghettos, and also inspired some great films. Cinderella Man, with some hard to watch scenes of violence, is not for everyone, but for those believing in the God who consistently champions the underdog throughout Scripture, it provides many moments of inspiration, of courage, and of nobility under severe stress.
For reflection/discussion Note: The following contains spoilers, so you might want to wait until you have seen the film before reading further.
1) Besides Seabiscuit what other underdog films have you seen? How are they similar? What are some of the “underdogs’ in the Bible? (Note that in Erin Brocovich Erin tries to compare herself to one event, but her fuzzy memory can only conjure up “David and wachacallhim?” See 1 Samuel 17.) Why do you think that such underdogs as Braddock and Seabiscuit would command so much public attention at the time? How do we still tend to live vicariously through sports heroes and celebrities?
2) How is Jim and Mae’s oldest son like Jean Valjean in Les Miserables? What do you think of Jim’s handling of the situation? What does this reveal about Jim and his values?
3) Who could best pray psalm 54—Mae or Jim? What has happened apparently to Jim’s faith, that he would tell Mae, “I’m all prayed out”? Does the church seem to be of much material help to the Braddocks? (For how one Catholic leader helped the down and out during this period see the film Entertaining Angels: the Dorothy day Story.) How does the film show priest and parish aiding the Braddock cause? What might this have meant to Mae? To Jim?
4) What do the scenes in the Relief line and at the Madison Square Garden parlor reveal about Jim and his inner state? How are they like a mini-crucifixion—that is, what did they cost Jim? How is this similar to the “emptying in the Philippians passage? (For a similar example of “emptying see Meryl Streep’s Karen falling to her knees before the governor of Kenya to beg land for “her” Kikuyu in Out of Africa.)
5) How might the Corinthians passage have helped Jim cope during their terrible time of need? Have you gone through a down period when, like him, you questioned your faith or the goodness of God? Did this, or other passages of Scriptures help you bear your burdens—and if so, how?
6) How important do you think it was that Mae visited Jim in his dressing room before the fight? Although it is true that Jim Braddock’s boxing skills and strength were important, what quality(ies) do you think contributed the most to the outcome of the story?
7) How do you think that the observation of Job might apply to the story of the Braddocks?