Monday, September 2, 2013

42

Directed by Brian Helgeland.
2013. Rated PG-13, 128 minutes.
Cast:
Chadwick Boseman
Christopher Meloni
Andre Holland
Lucas Black
Hamish Linklater
Ryan Merriman
T.R. Knight
Max Gail


The story of how Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to play Major League Baseball, as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, transcended the sports world as it was happening to become part of American history. He’s the most important sports figure of the twentieth century. Even if you think that statement is false, you’d have to agree he’s on the short list of possible candidates. With that in mind, 42 takes on the daunting task of telling a tale where everyone know the outcome.

We meet Jackie (Boseman) in 1945 while he’s playing Negro League Baseball for the Kansas City Monarchs. A quick incident at a gas station with a “whites only” restroom shows him as the type of guy who doesn’t take racism lying down. We also meet Branch Rickey (Ford), owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers. He’s looking for a man worthy of breaking baseball’s color barrier. He settles on Robinson even though those closest to him don’t think Jackie’s the right kind of guy. You should at least have a general idea of the rest. If not, just keep watching the movie.

Taken on its own terms, 42 is a fine movie. It does precisely what it wants to do, in the manner it wants to do it. We get a solid feeling of what our hero went through as he took the field more alone than any man ever had. His ordeal turns our stomach and we can’t help but root for him. Chadwick Boseman is good, if unspectacular, in the lead role. Far more impressive is his supporting cast. Of course, there’s Harrison Ford, just perfect as Branch Rickey. Nearly as good, in less flashier roles, are Nicole Beharie as Jackie’s wife Rachel and Andre Holland as reporter Wendell Smith. Smith is tasked with both chronicling Robinson’s journey and being somewhat of a personal assistant for the ballplayer. Others in the cast all shine when their time comes. Through their work and some adequate storytelling we hit some highs and lows en route to a welcome feel good story. The end. For most people.



For me, this is a very watchable, easily likable, but sorely lacking film. Most of my criticism is for what this movie isn’t. Maybe I’m being entirely unfair, but it’s not the Jackie Robinson story I wanted to see. This is 1947 visualized precisely as I’ve heard it, and read it, hundreds of times throughout the course of my life. The filmmakers play it far safer than Jackie himself ever did. For starters, it falls into the trap that nearly every telling of the story does. It’s not truly about the man. It’s about reactions. Somewhat, the reactions are his to whites, on an off the field, who felt compelled to shout epithets and/or put up obstacles to his success. Mostly, 42 is about white reaction to his presence. The movie also completely ignores the fact that a young black man named Larry Doby started his Major League career shortly after Robinson and dealt with the same garbage during the very same season. Then again, that part of the story almost always gets left out.

My biggest gripe is that the rest of our hero’s life is a story worth telling. This could easily have been a three plus hour epic going at least as far back as his days as a star athlete at UCLA, if not all the way to the beginning and going forward until his death. He did not just fade into oblivion once his playing days were over. In many ways, his baseball career was only the beginning of his public struggle for civil rights. The Jackie we get here is a fine conduit for our empathy, but much of that is due to our own sensibilities. The truth is that, as he is presented, he’s largely uninteresting. Giving us a fuller picture of the man would surely change that. As it stands, a movie focused on Branch Rickey, or Rachel Robinson, or Wendell Smith, could’ve accomplished the same thing with a more intriguing protagonist.

It probably sounds as if I don’t like 42 when that’s not the case. I enjoyed it quite a bit. It’s well put together and hits most of the right notes. I can nitpick the baseball scenes all day, but if you’re not an avid fan of the sport things are probably not bad enough to notice. I don’t even mind the totally fabricated finale. It’s a happy moment that fits so well into the movie that I can easily see why it was done. In the end, I had fun watching. I just want more than it’s willing to give me.

2 comments:

  1. Nice review Wendell. Some bits are cheesy and overly-dramatic, but it's still an enjoyable movie.

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