42 (2013): Written and directed by Brian Helgeland. Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, and Alan Tudyk. Rated PG-13 for: thematic elements and language. Running Time: 128 minutes
Rating: 3/4 Stars (3.5 for baseball fans)
As I sat down to watch 42, it occurred to me that, even though baseball has been woven into the fabric of American society for nearly a century and a half (and has ingrained itself into our culture and language), there has been a relative lack of good baseball movies based on true baseball stories. Seriously, not counting fictional classics like Field of Dreams or Sandlot, how many genuinely good baseball movies can you think of that are based on real events? Eight Men Out, A League Of Their Own, Moneyball, maybe a few others. Compared to the huge number of incredible stories baseball has to offer, that’s a really small number.
Thankfully, 42 is a solid enough film that it will probably join that unfortunately short list of great baseball films, despite being far from perfect itself. In just over two hours, the film covers the two years immediately following the now-legendary decision by Branch Rickey (then the General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers) to break one of the biggest unspoken rules of the baseball world by signing Jackie Robinson for several thousand dollars, making him the very first black player to play for a professional (read “official”) baseball team. After he signs the contract, Robinson spends a year in the Dodgers’ farm system (another, lesser-known innovation of Rickey’s), after which he is sent to the major leagues. The film ends with the Dodgers clinching the pennant at the end of the year, and with Jackie Robinson winning the first Rookie of the Year award shortly afterwards. And from day one, he is forced to silently and passively endure racism in all its forms- anonymously-mailed death threats, unending cries of “Go home nigger” from countless stadiums and opposing teams, hostility and resentment from his own teammates, and every so often the threat of actual, physical violence.
There’s a very telling scene in the movie when Rickey asks Jackie what he thinks about the Dodgers getting to the World Series. Robinson, in his quiet, stoic manner, responds, “I don’t think it matters what I think. It matters what I do.” The film seems to take Robinson’s word for it, as the focus of the movie is less on Jackie’s own, personal experience and far more on the perspective of us, looking back now and able to more fully comprehend what he (or, to be more exact, his career) meant to the world of baseball. In this, the movie loses a chance for some real depth. We get bits and pieces of Robinson’s feelings- a few conversations with his wife or with Rickey, and one genuinely excellent scene where he leaves the field so one can see him break a bat to let out all his pent-up rage- but it never amounts to any definitive image or statement about the man himself. Most of what we see in the film is what the world saw when he actually played- a man quietly and determinedly proving everyone wrong with his outstanding abilities on the diamond.
That’s not to say Jackie is a blank slate in his own film- Chadwick’s performance is as subtle as it is quiet, able to make the audience understand how pressured he feels without needing to shout, or curse, or grimace. And all the abuse he endures (including a hilariously unexpected turn by Firefly’s Alan Tudyk as the racist Phillies manager) never prevents him from enjoying the game he’s dedicated his life to. The highlights of the movie are his scenes with Harrison Ford’s Rickey, a performance that could very well end up on a lot of nomination lists next January- the two play off each other perfectly, and their frank candor with each other is a welcome relief from the constant meanness and pettiness that fills the rest of the film. The film also deserves credit for openly acknowledging that Rickey’s intentions in signing Jackie were not *just* philanthropic in nature- in his very first scene he tells his assistants, both concerned about the fallout from this decision, “Dollars aren’t black or white, gentlemen. They’re green. Every one of them is green.”
If you are a sports fan, and/or a fan of sports movies, I can’t think of a reason why you wouldn’t really, really like 42. If you are indifferent to (or utterly abhor) sports films in all their romanticizing, this probably won’t convert you, although I would still recommend the film for Harrison Ford’s performance alone. The film avoids delving into the big (and very sticky) questions of racism in American and its many, ongoing legacies, but it also never shies away from the fairly open racism that pervaded all of baseball AND the country, not just in the stereotypical South. Pretty much every form of abuse that Robinson had to endure is portrayed at one point or another, including the petition that many of the Dodgers initially signed saying they would refuse to play if he was brought up (to which Rickey and his manager respond, “Okay. Have fun being traded!”). Even though it occasionally feels less like a movie about Jackie Robinson and more like a compendium of “bad things said to Jackie Robinson when he played,” 42 is a well-made, well-acted, and respectable tribute to one of baseball’s greatest players and icons, even if it dives a little too far into romanticism.