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Howard's dead end
Why Ron Howard’s new biopic of world heavyweight champ James J. Braddock is a whitewash.
Eamonn McCann, 22 Sep 2005
I gather that Geraldine Kennedy, editor of the Irish Times, is resisting suggestions that the ‘Jaundiced Journal of West-Britonism’ stop publishing superstitious nonsense as serious argument.
It has recently emerged that the Times’ “Science Today” columnist, UCC Associate Professor in Biochemistry William Reville, accepts the theory of evolution – but believes nevertheless that an “intelligent designer” kept a continuous watchful eye on the process as it unfolded over 15 billion years (or thereabouts).
Professor Reville acknowledges that his espousal of “intelligent design” is a personal belief, not to be confused with scientific fact. “When I teach students, I present the conventional scientific explanation of evolution,” he wrote on August 11. “My personal opinions are not for the science classroom.”
Rational readers might find difficulty in understanding how acceptance of scientific facts can co-exist with a personal belief in a mystical explanation or part-explanation of the same facts. But at least Prof. Reville acknowledges the difference. He doesn’t demand that intelligent design be given the same status as evolution and the two taught together in class. This represents progress. I can remember being excluded from Religious Knowledge classes at St. Columb’s (oh, we were so the most oppressed people ever) for suggesting that there might be a smidgeen of truth in Darwin’s musing.
However, the professor’s admission of a personal belief in intelligent design emboldened fellow Times columnist Breda O’Brien to soar off into stratospheric silliness. It’s fair to say that Ms. O’Brien, who lacks Dana’s deft touch in these matters, seemed not to understand that she was distancing herself by the width of a galaxy from Reville’s carefully delimited position. Indeed, the oblivious Ms. O’Brien blithely revealed that she doesn’t understand what the argument is about.
The advocates of intelligent design, she explained, “hold that Darwinian evolutionary theory cannot adequately explain the sheer complexity of living things. They believe that nature shows tangible signs of having been designed by a pre-existing intelligence.” She raged in the rest of her column (September 3) against scientists who had objected to publication in a US scientific journal of an article defending intelligent design.
The key phrase in her piece was “they believe”. Of course, they do. The argument is precisely about whether a belief which by its nature cannot be tested by normal scientific process should be given the status of science and, for example, offered as an explanation of the natural world in a scientific journal or taught in the science classroom.
There is no scientific controversy about intelligent design. The controversy is between science and religion. No defender of the scientific method that I know of wants to ban intelligent design from its proper place, which is in churches, where it should stay.
I am told that at least one embarrassed journalist who approached Ms. Kennedy to suggest that the paper’s standing was hardly enhanced by giving space to ignorant irrationality was summarily dismissed with mysterious references to “freedom of speech”. Nice enough woman. But editing a heavyweight daily is hardly her weight.
Next week in your Irish Times – “Leo in the cusp of Capricorn – fears for European Constitution.” “Weasel entrails reveal origins of McDowell philosophy.” “Body, blood of Christ detected in communion wafer.”
Mark Lawson suggested the other day that Cinderella Man had bombed at the US box office because, hours after its premiere in New York in June, Russell Crowe thumped a hotel clerk with a phone.
Punters couldn’t take a bad-tempered bully seriously as a nice-guy heavyweight champion, explained the popular pundit.
Sounds highly insightful until you pause for a millisecond and realise the remark has no meaning. But then the man is a Beeb2 plus Guardian columnist and has to be saying something.
There’s a more substantial likely reason the Ron Howard biopic of James J. Braddock has lost its backers a bundle. It’s no good.
The script bobs and weaves for an hour and a half to avoid every challenging question arising from Braddock’s career.
From a poor Irish background in New York, Braddock won the heavyweight title from Max Baer in 1935, then lost it to Joe Louis two years later.
Here’s the gist of Universal’s blurb: “As the nation enters the darkest years of the Great Depression...Braddock, carrying on his shoulders the hopes and dreams of the disenfranchised masses...faces his toughest challenger in Max Baer...renowned for having killed two men in the ring.” Pure-spirited underdog triumphs against black-hearted villain. All the political edge and moral complexity of a gobbet of rock-star compassion.
Here’s a different perspective from Depression-era sportswriter Lester Rodney: “In the 1930s if you weren’t some kind of radical, communist, socialist or Trotskyist, you were considered brain-dead and you probably were.”
This was an era of rough, radical mass struggle, in which the Irish played as active a role as any, which tore from a reluctant ruling class the social-security reforms now under assault from Bushite neo-cons. Strip away that context and all that’s left is an unconvincing morality tale: virtually the entire population of ’30s New York depicted as brain-dead, doe-eyed and dreamy as they wait passively for a champion to deliver them into dignity.
Braddock is idealised to meet the requirements of the scenario, Max Baer demonised as a psychotic ogre. True, Maxie was a fearsome destroyer in the ring. But he also had a Star of David embroidered on his dressing gown for his bout against Hitler’s favourite fighter, Max Schmeling (himself a staunch opponent of the Nazi regime). That sort of contradictory aspect of his character can’t be admitted in Cinderella Man, for fear of daunting the audience.
Baer didn’t kill two men in the ring, but one, and the memory haunted him for the rest of his days. Throughout the remainder of his career, he contributed to the upkeep of Frankie Campbell’s family.
There’s no mention in the movie of the fact that Braddock’s manager, Joe Gould, had a clause included in his contract for the Louis fight giving his boy, in the event of losing the title, 10 percent of Louis’s earnings for the next two years. Braddock was to pocket around $170,000 of the Brown Bomber’s wages – more than two million in today’s money.
In light of Louis’s dire financial problems later, this was surely a significant episode in the Braddock story. But to admit it would have raised complex questions – not least about the extra levy imposed on a black man for a shot at the title – and stained the clean, innocent image which Universal wanted to project to the target audience of young whites with an entertainment dollar.
Howard avoids dealing with the issue by the daring (in the sense of brass-necked) device of ending the movie before Braddock meets Louis.
Why rail against Cinderella Man?
Because it reduces popular culture to comfort-food for the masses, which is a mortal sin.
Because it shows contempt for said masses by ignoring the capacity of plain people heroically to fight their own corner, rather than having a counterfeit heroism bestowed upon them.
Because it plays on the vulnerabilities of fight aficionados like myself who like to believe it impossible to make a seriously bad movie about heavyweight boxing in New York in the 1930s.
Because it requires Renee Zellweger to utter the line, “You are the champion of my heart, James J. Braddock.” b