As drama this is top-notch. As history … well, I’m not a boxing historian, but a little research shows me that it’s half right and half bullshit.
The correct part is that Jim Braddock was a genuinely good man. He did have early success, did go into a tailspin during the Great Depression, worked the docks when he could, got on relief when he had to. And paid the welfare money back when he was successful again. This is the part that makes the movie work. The heartbreak of not being able to provide for your family, the debasement of going to your old friends, literally hat in hand (and that may be a screenwriter’s invention, but it works wonderfully) … well, that had me choked up. Russell Crowe is very good in this part. Renee Zellweger is as good as she always is, and the “you can’t keep fighting and leave me and the kids alone and destitute!” cliché is kept to a minimum. Thank God. Myself, I’d find it easier to believe she’d be solidly on Jim’s side, as when he tells people warning him that Max Baer is going to kill him in the ring that “How many people do you think died on the docks today? How many froze to death in a cardboard shack in Hooverville?” Myself, I’m not a fighter, I hate boxing, but if I had the fists and the jaw and the speed for it I’d climb into that ring without a qualm, going for the money to feed my kids. We’re all going to die someday. Go for it.
In the ring it’s all historically accurate as to outcomes, except for something every movie from John Garfield to Rocky Balboa to Raging Bull does, which is to exaggerate the violence. I’ve seen a few boxing matches, and I’ve never seen people whale away at each other the way they do in the movies, and that’s because two guys can’t go at each other that hard for that long. They can’t take those kinds of punches. They circle, they tap, they bob and weave and feint … and then comes a flurry of punches and they back away to assess the damage. You know that, I know that, but I guess when you make a movie about boxing everybody expects lots of blood and lots of punches. Okay, a movie that showed boxers circling a lot would be pretty boring …
But where the film goes seriously astray is in its need for a villain, and its appropriation of Max Baer as the one. True, he killed a man in the ring … and had nightmares about it for decades afterward. He almost quit entirely. He liked to boast that he never had a fight outside of the ring. He was a prankster and later a movie actor, and seems to have been a decent guy all around. He was even accused of pulling his punches so as not to do anyone too serious damage. And he wore the Star of David on his trunks (he was half Jewish) when he beat the crap out of the Nazi Max Schmeling. (Who wasn’t actually a Nazi, who loathed Hitler and National Socialism and was sent on suicide missions by those swine time after time … only he kept coming back alive. He later became the biggest Coca-Cola bottler in post-war Germany.)
This strikes me as seriously wrong, and is a major flaw in an otherwise terrific entertainment. One other caveat, which is … damn, that last match went on a long time. I know, I know, it’s a boxing movie, this is a climactic moment, I didn’t complain when Seabiscuit’s last race was shown longer than pole-to-pole … but Seabiscuit and War Admiral weren’t beating the shit out of each other. I will never like boxing, even when it’s telling an inspiring story. The parts of any boxing movie I like the best happen outside the ring.