An indomitable America coming back.
"Sir, in my heart there was a kind of fighting,
That would not let me sleep . . ." Hamlet
James J. Braddock lived in the Depression Era and fought for his family's life while defeating Max Baer for the heavyweight championship of the world in 1935. Ron Howard directs Russell Crowe in the titular role with an obvious affection for depicting the difficult financial times, the fighter, and the actor. Comparisons to Seabiscuit, both racehorse and film about him, are inevitable and flattering on all sides. Comparisons to "Rocky" go only as far as boxing and the rise and fall and rise again of thoroughly American heroes. Crowe is far superior to Stallone; Braddock is the real thing, Rocky is a fiction. The authentic boxer is more compelling by the nature of the reality Howard meticulously recreates.
I am always intrigued how a director can draw the audience into a drama when most already know the plot. But then Greek dramatists, and Shakespeare with his borrowed plots, have been doing that for centuries. Howard succeeds in making us care about this decent man with a gift, struggling in a time when the best were broken by the stock market crash of 1929. Much of the film chronicles Braddock's string of bad luck, most importantly a broken hand at the peak of his career, and the ambivalence of his wife, who would prefer he not fight anyone, much less the champ, who already killed two men in the ring.
In the struggle between husband and wife, I find strains of the Ron Howard missing auteurship because of his penchant for the sentimental. Too much time in this overly long biography is taken with the debate over whether or not Braddock should fight; we get the idea early on that no loving wife would want her husband to take a pounding that sometimes actually loosens the brain from the cranium. So Howard should get on with what he does extremely well, depicting the drama of the actual fights in the ring and in the offices of the commissioner, who once suspended Braddock's license for poor fighting and threatens to deny him the chance at world champion Max Baer.
That Braddock goes on to lose to Joe Louis is of little consequence for this film, just a footnote after the Baer fight. What is of real interest is that Ron Howard has grown as a filmmaker who can depict character and times in equal measure, Russell Crowe is an actor of enormous subtlety, and James Braddock was a true American hero, a fighter who came back, a symbol of an indomitable America coming back from economic failure.