There is just something about baseball. The way a man can stand at a plate, bat in hand and make the difference between victory and defeat for his teammates. Or it can be a man standing on the pitcher’s mound at the bottom of the ninth with a ball in the glove, as well as the difference between winning or losing for his whole community. It is one of the few sports that marries teamwork with the romantic image of individual achievement. The American dream in a diamond field. That may be why, to this day it remains the sport that best translated to our other favorite American pastime, the movies. Sure, more Americans watch the Super Bowl each year than all of the World Series, but can you think of a football film with the same level of speechless awe as The Natural? Is there a basketball movie with the same nostalgic sentimentality as Field of Dreams? Face it, in Hollywoodland, baseball is still the most watched game.
With that in mind, it is not so surprising that there is a film version of the amazing Jackie Robinson story. Rather, it is shocking that it took so long. If baseball represents the concept of American innocence in the 20th century, nothing could be more fascinating than to rock that reassuring belief when confronted by the country’s greatest injustice. As every grade schooler knows, Jackie Robinson was the first African-American baseball player who went to bat against American bigotry the moment he donned the number 42. The first baseman of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Robinson literally changed the face of the game and forced players both on and off the field to reevaluate what it means to be part of a team or greater community. He is the sole ball player whose number was retired across all Major League teams in 1997 and is honored by an annual “Jackie Robinson Day” upon which all players wear 42.
It can be the stuff of powerful drama or a maudlin sermon on civility. Brian Helgeland attempts to walk that perilous line throughout his new film titled (what else?) 42.
42 solemnly opens in the Brooklyn offices of Branch Rickey. Harrison Ford plays the role with just the right amount of subtlety, leaving maybe an inch or two of scenery not yet chewed for the other actors. Earnestly, he puts down his to tell his underlings, including a terrific Christopher Meloni as Leo Durocher, that he intends to put a Black player on his team. A Black baseball player in the Major Leagues?! That is madness, they insist! But, Rickey will have his way. The entrepreneurial crusaders eventually find the ballplayer with the right age and temperament: Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman). When the film introduces Jackie, he is already pushing color boundaries when he insists on entering a gas station bathroom meant for only white customers. If the attendant wants the business of his Negro American League team, the Kansas City Monarchs and their enormous bus, then Jackie can throw up wherever he wants.
When Rickie and Robinson meet, it is a kinetic moment for both actors who play the unsaid political ramifications of what is happening with the right amount of hesitation and disdain. If Jackie does well with the Minor League Montreal Royals in 1946, he will probably be in Brooklyn by 1947.
Of course, the movie tracks Jackie’s rise through the baseball ranks where he and wife Rachel Robinson (Nicole Beharie) face discrimination at every turn. They are denied access to a plane because Rachel uses the wrong bathroom and are thrown out of Florida games because redneck sheriffs insist that it is illegal for Negroes to play baseball. There is even a surprisingly tense scene in the film where Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), Robinson’s journalistic shadow and the film’s pseudo narrator, has to trick Jackie to take a night drive out of a small Georgian town or else face the ominous threat delivered by a prophetic old white man that “trouble is coming.” Yet, at its core, 42 is a bio-pic about Jackie overcoming all odds and helping the Dodgers win the pennant in his rookie year.
42 is a very sentimental film with its heart on its sleeve. At certain moments, such as the film’s first scene with Ricky and Durocher, it feels dangerously close to becoming an after school special. However, once it gets on the field and into the trials and tribulations of the man who would wear the whispered number, it finds the kind of gentle authenticity that so many other bio-pics desperately yearn for.
Helgeland, best known for gritty political-crime thrillers that he often writes or directs, including L.A. Confidential (1997), Mystic River (2003) and Man on Fire (2004), feels refreshingly unsure of how to cut such an earnest film, thereby sewing a sense of wide-eyed honesty to the proceedings. He is also aided by a talented cast determined to get this one right.
I have not seen Boserman’s previous films, but he could be a newly minted star as Robinson. He captures a level of defiance and frustration usually glossed over in elementary schools, while still communicating that playful joy the real icon had at stealing bases. It is impossible to not keep your eyes on him when he skips from first to second, even as pitcher after pitcher is dumbfounded.
In his first overture in the part of movie star statesman, Ford graciously takes a supporting role with the same kind of aging twinkle that other legends like Edward G. Robinson and/or Michael Caine experienced. Even when the script becomes too on-the-nose, Ford’s big grin and overindulged accent that mumbles through cigars is always on mark. As a man who seems equal part capitalist and idealist, Mr. Rickey is a riot to watch every time he is onscreen. The righteous self-certainty of the role is summed up early by one of Rickey’s better speeches. “He’s a Methodist. I’m a Methodist. God’s a Methodist.”
The rest of the cast is also an all-star lineup, however they are for the most part left to play the standard teammates or managers who are initially unreceptive to Robinson and then come around. It really would have been nice to see more of Rachel’s struggles as the lonely wife of the first African-American ball player. Sadly, it is only hinted at during the Minor League year and then dropped almost immediately by the time the movie heads for the Big Apple.
I saw my screening of 42 on April 4th. Normally, remembering such dates can be a meaningless triviality. However, this one had a special significance that echoed through my head during the whole showing. It had been exactly 45 years to the day that Martin Luther King Jr. was shot on a Memphis balcony. It would seem presumptuous to equate such a devastating national tragedy with the perils of breaking into baseball, but that echo can still be heard in the film’s best scenes. When Robinson takes the field against the Philadelphia Phillies several times throughout the film, it is the taunts and cascading flood of racial slurs hurled by Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) that strike the largest chord. As the film agonizingly illustrates, not only did Robinson have to take abuse on and off the field; he could do nothing but turn the other cheek even before hundreds of witnesses to the assaults. Such intolerant resistance to change can still be felt today.
42 is nowhere near the best baseball movie. It is sentimental, earnest and sometimes hagiographic. But that may be why it is so enjoyable. This is an unapologetic celebration of Jackie Robinson and what he did for baseball and race relations in this country. He brought reality to America’s favorite escape. Over 60 years later, he still is doing it.
Den of Geek Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars