Crowe Fights the Good Fight In Ron Howard’s Cinderella Man

Ron Howard’s Cinderella Man, from a screenplay by Cliff Hollings-worth and Akiva Goldsman, struck me as just an O.K. vintage fight movie. I say “just O.K.” in opposition to the gushing superlatives lavished on it by many early reviewers.

Like most movies in the boxing genre, the ring action in Cinderella Man is more spectacularly violent than almost anything ever recorded in real life, but the actual James Braddock, at 6-foot-3 and 193 pounds, is clearly a much larger man than Russell Crowe, despite all the actor’s publicized workouts. Even before Hollywood movies in the 20’s and 30’s hyped up the fight game, motor-mouthed radio announcers were jazzing up the gladiator-like clashes for millions of avid listeners. That’s how I first became a boxing fan at about the time that Cinderella Man reaches its climax.

As it happens, I was approaching my seventh birthday in Brooklyn, on June 13, 1935, when James J. Braddock dethroned Max Baer for the world’s heavyweight boxing championship. Still, I was just a year or two too young to appreciate the reported magnitude of the upset by a 10-to-1 underdog of the reigning world champion, who had previously beaten Max Schmeling for the championship. Instead, I was to be galvanized in the years that followed by the rise of Joe Louis as the first black champion since the badly-served-by-white-prejudice Jack Johnson. Louis’ two historic fights with Schmeling brought Adolf Hitler and his Aryan ideology into play, along with the ill-fated dirigible Hindenburg with the swastika on its tail over New York and the triumphant repudiation of Aryan athletics in the triumphs of Jesse Owens in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Somehow, Braddock’s place in ring history got lost in that storm-filled time, along with Max Baer’s. Still, for years afterward, I was puzzled by the fact that a Jewish fighter beat a reluctant standard-bearer for Hitler’s hate-filled Aryanism without arousing anti-Fascist cheers. Yet in view of the subsequent Holocaust, it would seem that Baer would at least get some retroactive credit as a Jewish heavyweight champion at a time, as always, of rampant anti-Semitism.

Instead, Mr. Howard and his screenwriters have turned Baer (Craig Bierko) into a foul-mouthed, playboy bully Goliath to Braddock’s clean-living family-man David. Baer was no saint, of course, and his lax training habits finally caught up with him in the Braddock fight, but he was good-looking enough to co-star with Myrna Loy in Metro studio’s The Prizefighter and the Lady (1933). His literally lethal right hand caused the deaths of two of his ring opponents, but that doesn’t justify the monstrously grimacing facial expressions that Mr. Bierko deploys, making Baer into a cartoonish villain.

Still, this doesn’t take away from Mr. Crowe’s rugged sensitivity (Oscar-worthy once again) as he plays the battle-weary warrior, both in the ring and on the streets during the Great Depression. Ah, the Great Depression! “I vas dere, Charlie.” My stand-up comedy line at a Gene McCarthy rally in 1968 was that we were the only relief family in Brooklyn to vote for Alf Landon in 1936. Only people of a certain age can appreciate the joke of voting against one’s economic interests-as did my parents out of stubborn pride in their sacred individuality. Hoover didn’t give us relief and F.D.R. did-but my father felt it damaged his dignity as a one-time whiz-bang real-estate salesman until the Anhalt Bank in Vienna tanked, and liens were put on all of my father’s properties.

Nonetheless, I don’t claim to be an authority on the Great Depression. Some of the more negative reviewers of Cinderella Man have presumed to question the film’s depiction of that era, as if there had ever been or could ever be a mere movie that would encompass every nuance of such a vast and copious phenomenon. The Grapes of Wrath, you say-but what about all the poverty east of the Mississippi River and in all the big cities? My family, like Braddock’s, was on relief, but there was a million miles between Brooklyn and New Jersey. Mr. Howard and company have made one astute addition to the story in the fictional Mike Wilson (Paddy Considine), Braddock’s co-worker on the Hoboken docks, and a political activist so far to the left that he scorns F.D.R.’s New Deal as too timid and conservative. The Depression was so brutal that it made many people desperate. Mike is finally shown being slain during a police cleanup of the “Hooverville” tents in Central Park. I’ve never read or heard of such tents in Central Park, but I can believe they existed; on an allegorical level, they certainly did.

The other major bone of contention in critiques of Cinderella Man is the perceived sentimentality of the non-abrasive marriage of Jim and Mae Braddock (Renée Zellweger). Perhaps, but I don’t know if any audience would have much sympathy for a troublesome wife to a man with so many setbacks outside the home. As it is, I think Ms. Zellweger does as well as she can with an inadequately developed role that’s outside the central focus of the film.

Yet if Cinderella Man is to be accused of sentimentality, it’s not with the character of Mae Braddock, but rather with supposedly good-as-gold Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti), Braddock’s manager. As the part is written now, Mr. Giamatti is a strong candidate for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Yet it was common street knowledge, even in my childhood, that Gould was part of a conspiracy to deny Louis a shot at the title until Louis signed a percentage of all his future earnings to Gould and his associates. All his life, the socially and financially inexperienced Louis was victimized by swindlers like Gould.

On the Depression, Cinderella Man is venturesome, but on the eternal crookedness of the fight game, Mr. Howard and company take a pass.

Even so, how many people in today’s mindlessly escapist marketplace are going to want to see a boxing film set during the Great Depression? I hope that the film does great business, since, quite likely, without the box-office clout of Mr. Crowe and Ms. Zellweger, this project would never have been green-lighted by today’s overly cautious movie M.B.A. moguls. And with all its limitations, Cinderella Man at least begins to fill the virtual vacuum of decent American-studio-backed movies.

Catholic Guilt

Volker Schlöndorff’s The Ninth Day, from a screenplay by Eberhard Görner and Andreas Pflüger, is loosely based on the prison diaries of the Reverend Jean Bernard. The thoughtful filmgoer may see this as a mere footnote to the Holocaust, inasmuch as the movie centers on the moral dilemma of a Roman Catholic priest from Luxembourg who is imprisoned in Dachau for his anti-Nazi activities. He is then given a nine-day release so that he can persuade his bishop to abandon his silent passive resistance and join in a declaration that Nazism is compatible with church doctrine. Though the priest’s eventual decision may seem like a foregone conclusion, the sophisticated details of the stratagems employed by his Nazi tempter make him the film’s ingenious Mephistopheles.

Henri Kremer (Ulrich Matthes) is first shown with his fellow dissident priests enduring the collectively brutal and seemingly casual humiliations inflicted on the prisoners by the sadistic guards. Any acts or words of seeming defiance can be punished by a slow death-ironic for a priest-of crucifixion. One day, Kremer is summoned from his duties to what he thinks, at first, will be his own crucifixion. Instead he’s redirected to a release center, where the priestly garb he was wearing when he was arrested by the Gestapo is returned to him. He is driven to his sister’s home by a Gestapo officer named Gebhardt (August Diehl), who drops him off with instructions to come to a meeting the next day to learn the conditions of his release.

It turns out that Gebhardt, a former seminarian, is part of a Catholic faction in the Nazi Party dedicated to enlisting the Vatican in a joint Nazi-Catholic crusade against the godless hordes of Bolshevism. Among the tidbits of church gossip that Kremer picks up upon his release is the Pope’s condemnation of the Allied bombings of German civilians. Yet on the Nazi conquest of much of Europe, the Pope is eloquently silent. Strangely, Kremer seems to accept the argument that there is nothing the Pope can do against Hitler without jeopardizing the lives of hundreds of thousands of believers. The Holocaust’s horrors in the East are still only vague rumors to people in the West. When Kremer learns that the rumors are true from Gebhardt’s own lips, he finds the strength to resist the latter’s promises of permanent liberation, for both Kremer and his fellow priestly martyrs. Kremer returns to Dachau, a hero to his comrades.

In an end-credit postscript, we learn that many of the Dachau priests died in captivity, but that the real priest on whom the character of Kremer was based survived to publish his diaries of the experience. In this cat-and-mouse Faustian fable, Mr. Diehl and Mr. Matthes are singularly fascinating as tension-filled incompatibles.

Boys to Men

Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin, from his own screenplay, based on the novel by Scott Heim, starts off in flashback as an adult sexually molests two 8-year-old boys. The two are now a pair of troubled teenagers, and the event is treated almost as a morally neutral rite of passage-that is, if you consider growing up to be a shy, awkward, asexual young man with sublimated fantasies of being kidnapped by U.F.O.’s, or a hardened, affectless gay hustler who drifts into rough trade and physical punishments with no protest on his part, as examples of being “troubled.”

As if to satisfy a clinical diagnosis, neither boy grows up with any strong father figure except that of their male seducer, known only as “Coach” (Bill Sage). The seduction is lyrical for the gay teenager named Neil and hallucinatory for the geeky Brian. Neil has a beautiful but sluttish mother (Elisabeth Shue), Brian a remarkably uncurious and unemotional maternal cipher (Lisa Long).

The two boys are sensitively played as children by Chase Ellison (as the hustler-to-be Neil, age 8) and George Webster (as the U.F.O.-wacko-to-be Brian). The adult Neil is ably incarnated by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and the same is true of Brady Corbet as the grown-up Brian.

It must be noted that the extensive footage of Neil’s various paying tricks contains some of the most explicit and explosive soft-core simulations of gay intercourse I have ever seen in an American movie of more than minimal competence. Mr. Araki’s Mysterious Skin has been linked to Pedro Almodóvar’s Bad Education-with good reason-but I have reservations about the guileful opportunism of both films in the arena of gay cinematic themes, still taboo for many moviegoers. Mr. Araki is, like Mr. Almodóvar, a breakout artist dedicated to normalizing and even romanticizing what was once regarded as uncomfortably abnormal in the human condition.