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Cinderella Man
Directed by Ron Howard
Universal Pictures (PG-13 rating)
Commentary by Kevin Miller

If ever there was a classic rendering of the American dream—little guy overcomes incredible odds to make it big—Cinderella Man is it. It has all the requisite components:

1) A virtuous underdog (former heavyweight boxing contender James J. Braddock) who has tasted success but has recently fallen on hard times:

2) a worldly-wise mentor (Braddock’s manager) who offers the hero one more chance for glory;

3) a corrupt system (the boxing commission) that the hero must overcome if he hopes to achieve his dream;

4) a faithful companion (Braddock’s wife) who inspires and supports the hero along the way;

5) a nefarious villain (heavyweight champion Max Baer) who represents everything the hero is not;

6) a community in desperate need of a hero (Depression-era New York);

7) a final battle (the heavyweight title bout) in which the fate of the hero—and, by extension, the entire community—will be decided.

We’ve all seen this story countless times. Braveheart, Rocky, Gladiator, Jerry McGuire, Unforgiven, First Blood, Hoosiers, A League of Their Own, and Miracle are just a few titles that spring to mind, but there are dozens more. And if you look back even further, you can trace the origins of this “monomyth” through the history of film and literature, all the way back to the first stories ever told around a campfire or on a cave wall. Greek, Roman, Norse, Indian, Jewish—virtually all bodies of mythological literature contain this archetype. Considering this pedigree, I can’t help but wonder why we feel compelled to tell and re-tell this story over and over again. Sure, Cinderella Man is a masterful rendition of this myth. But do we really need to see it again?

Perhaps the best way to answer this question is through my own viewing experience. Cinderella Man is one of those rare films during which I found it extremely difficult to keep my critical faculties engaged. I was so emotionally involved in the story that I had to keep reminding myself it wasn’t real. Forget about the technical aspects of the production; I just wanted Braddock to win! Afterwards, I puzzled over why this was so. I could see why it was important for people during the Depression to pin their hopes on an everyman hero like Braddock. But why was it so important to me? Why—even though I knew the outcome—was I on the edge of my seat throughout the final bout? I’m not sure as to why my personal response was so pronounced, but I can think of several reasons Braddock’s journey and stories like it touch me, and everyone else.

First, stories like Braddock’s give us hope that, like him, we can also overcome the obstacles that hold us back. We can gain a measure of dignity and self-determination—if only to the point where we are able to choose the time and place of our ultimate defeat. We don’t have to give up and become victims or give in to the corruption that is all around us. Never mind that the film’s depiction of Braddock borders on hagiography. His journey reminds us that the good don’t always die young, and nice guys sometimes do finish first. When we’re tempted to compromise our morals for gain, we can reflect back on stories like this one and be inspired to continue pursuing the high and narrow path of virtue.

In a similar vein, stories like Cinderella Man remind us of what’s worth fighting for. Getting to the top isn’t all that matters. In fact, it may not matter at all. It’s the person you become along the way that counts. And if the struggle does put you up on top, the fight isn’t over. We still have to contend with retaining our virtue in the face of all the temptations that victory brings.

Yet there’s always a price to victory. Each time Braddock defeated an opponent, he was sending yet another man to the same relief line in which he had only recently been standing. In boxing, as in any sport, when one person wins, someone else loses. How about in life? What can we do to ensure our own heroics don’t wind up victimizing others? Rather than focusing merely on our own journey, how can we ensure that the pursuit of our liberation also leads to the liberation of others?

Stories like Cinderella Man also point to the importance of community. This film focuses on Braddock’s family. During a press conference, when Braddock is asked what he is fighting for, his reply consists of one word: “milk.” When he was a younger man, a prouder man, Braddock was probably a lot more like his opponent Max Baer. He fought for all of the things our culture teaches us are important: money, fame, power, and happiness. But years of struggle have taught Braddock that all of those things are merely fleeting. What really matters are love, honor, faithfulness, perseverance, and the people who live right under his roof. Braddock is willing to sacrifice everything—even his life—to protect them, to set a good example for his kids. Perhaps the years of hardship were God’s way of preparing Braddock to handle the victory to come. Rather than destroy his family, as is so often the case, his quest for the title merely makes them stronger as they band together to support his pursuit.

Of course, Braddock’s effect on the wider community—indeed, the nation as a whole—is also central to this film. He became a hero not only to his family but also to his co-workers and to virtually every other person who felt like he or she had been cheated of the “good life” by the Depression. Cinderella Man reminds us that we all live our lives on a stage. It doesn’t matter whether thousands of people are watching us or merely a handful, it’s always important to strive for greatness, to be people of character. Just as Braddock’s life inspires us, our lives serve as an inspiration to others. Whether that inspiration is positive or negative depends upon the example we set.

Many critics will deride this film for its sentimental, simplistic version of reality. Many already have. But let’s not forget that the name of this film—Cinderella Man—is derived from a fairy tale. Even though such stories are not lauded for their literal representation of reality, we still love and need them. They are true in a way that reality can never be.

Copyright @ 2005 Kevin Miller.


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