42 – A Review

I seriously doubt that they could have made a movie that I was more in the tank for than 42. I love sports movies in general, but I have a special affection for anything baseball related. Throw in an inspiring story about someone overcoming prejudice and adversity and people standing up for what they believe in and you have pretty much guaranteed that I am going to enjoy the film. Sprinkle with a trailer that features a Jay-Z song (the appropriately named “Brooklyn Go Hard) and I was anxiously awaiting the release of 42; I was very upset when work obligations prevented me from going to the advanced screening and I had to wait and see the movie like a regular person.

42 is a solid film that I think everyone should see, especially if you don’t know much about Jackie Robinson.  His story is an important one and you don’t have to be a sports fan in any capacity to get a lot out of this film. His struggle was that of many people, just done on a much more public stage. That being said, it’s a very good movie but not a great one. The acting is uniformly well done, but I thought the film lacked some depth and nuance. The film has a tremendous number of things going for it, but subtlety isn’t one of them.

42 focuses on the historic 1947 Major League Baseball season when Jackie Robinson broke the color line and became the first African American baseball player to play in the big leagues. Prior to 1947, baseball was a segregated sport and African American players were relegated to play in the separate Negro leagues. There was clear prohibition to players of color playing in Major League Baseball, but it had been an unwritten (and mostly unspoken) rule since the 1880s. Branch Rickey, the President and GM of the Brooklyn Dodgers, decided it was time to challenge the status quo and hand-picked Jackie Robinson for the daunting task at hand. It goes without saying that this was an unpopular decision and Rickey was very conscious of how the situation had to be handled. Robinson had to have the strength to never fight back, no matter how hateful or vile the language was that was directed his way. If he fought back, Robinson’s detractors would simply use his actions to justify their preconceived stereotypes; they wouldn’t see a man defending himself, rather they would see an out of control and violent Black man who was too uncivilized to be fraternizing with white folk. Robinson would have to show tremendous restraint and endure the scorn of not only his opponents but the fans in the crowd and even that of his teammates.

I think that they were very smart to cast a relatively unknown actor to play Jackie Robinson; a more famous face would have been distracting in this instance. As I am unfamiliar with Chadwick Boseman’s body of work, for all intents and purposes he became Jackie Robinson in this movie. Boseman effectively showed the Herculean task that faced Robinson as he took on this role of trailblazer and portrayed Jackie with the dignity and poise befitting the legend. Boseman has a nice screen presence and has such an innate charm that makes Robinson instantly likeable and helps make the pain and struggle he endured really resonate with the viewer.  42 lays on the hero worship a little too thickly, but Boseman does his best to try and make Robinson a slightly more nuanced character with the little opportunity he has. I’m sure that Robinson was a much more layered man who had his flaws, but 42 isn’t interested in any of that character development.  Boseman plays noble perfect well, but the most interesting and compelling scene in the film is when we see Robinson break down and have doubts. Boseman gets to show some range and Robinson because a far more human when he is allowed to stumble a bit and struggle with the burden he is being asked to shoulder. (This is why I also don’t have much sympathy for players who get upset when they get booed after poor performance.)

I was surprised at just how much I enjoyed Harrison Ford’s turn as Branch Rickey; I’ve found Ford’s recent performance somewhat hit or miss, but he really does a nice job in bringing the fabled Rickey to life. While 42 is clearly the Jackie Robinson story, it is also partially the story of Branch Rickey. While Robinson is the more restrained performance, Ford as Rickey gets to ham it up a little bit and I think the results were enjoyable. Rickey’s motivations for integrating baseball are not completely altruistic, but he cares about the man that he’s sending out there. Ford gets to yell and huff and puff, but he also gets some smaller moments as well. And for the first time in a long time, it looks like he is actually having some fun up there.

The remaining cast of supporting characters are all pretty broadly drawn and for the large extent are caricatures. They are either eventually supportive of Robinson or they aren’t and that becomes their defining trait. Christopher Meloni has what basically works out to be a cameo as the Dodgers manager, but he gets perhaps the most well rounded of the supporting roles. Nicole Behaire gets a lot of screen time as Robinson’s wife Rachel, but mostly she just gets to look concerned. The actors all do their best with the limited roles that they are given, but for the most part they are just there to provide some context for the events that are unfolding.
Alan Tudyk (Firefly, represent!) is given the inevitable role of playing the racist manager of the Philadelphia Phillies and is part of one of the more uncomfortable scenes in the movie when he continuously heckles Robinson with racial epithets during each at bat. I had a tough time sitting through that ugly display, but it provides some much needed perspective on the restraint that was being asked of Robinson. I was becoming angrier and angrier as the scene unfolded; I can’t even imagine what it was like to directly endure that in person.

Some other quick thoughts:

  • T. R. Knight is in the house – I haven’t seen much of him since he left Grey’s Anatomy (and I stopped watching shortly thereafter as George was my favorite character), so it was nice to see him again. Hope this leads to a more high profile presence. I’ve missed him.
  • I don’t know how thrilled the people of Pittsburgh are going to be with this movie. This will make more sense after you see the movie.
  • Another nice cameo – John C. McGinley (Dr. Cox for Scrubs fans) makes an appearance as the Dodgers announcer.
  • Even though this story is based on true events, it is sometimes feels like 42 could be a made-up story as the events unfold. Of course there is selection in what they choose to depict, but if you didn’t know better you would think this is a work of fiction. 42 is far closer to the sports movie genre of storytelling than the biopic genre.
  • I couldn’t help but think while watching this movie that the next big challenge to the status quo in sports will probably happen sooner rather than later – the first openly gay athlete in one of the major sports. There are obviously gay men playing professional sports today that are simply not open about it, but that day is coming. I would like to hope that we as a society would be more supportive than we were in Robinson’s time, but I have my doubts. I hope whoever it is that comes forward will draw strength from the Jackie Robinson story. (My guess – it will be a hockey player; as the NHL has been far more open-minded than the NBA, MLB or NFL to date).
  • 42 is a PG-13 movie, so this is a highly sanitized version of what Robinson had to put up with. I don’t think that necessarily hurts the movie, but it’s important to keep in mind that this is what I like to call the Disney-vized version of history.
  • Jackie Robinson’s legacy is still felt throughout baseball; the number 42 is the only number that has been retired by all MLB teams. After this year, no active player will wear the number – the Yankees Mariano Rivera is the last to sport the 42 and he will retire at the end of this season. Once a year on Jackie Robinson Day, all MLB players wear the number 42 to pay tribute to Robinson. Yankee 2nd baseman Robinson Cano is named after Jackie and wears the number 24 to honor him.

42 is not a controversial movie and it isn’t particularly deep; there are moments when it is even a little corny. But 42 is immensely enjoyable and inspiring despite these limitations. I will admit to tearing up more than once during the film even though I know the Robinson story well. There is so much pleasure in seeing someone overcome adversary and change a few minds along the way. It’s a movie with an important message, but it is also a fun movie to watch. 42 is designed to inspire and it succeeds, while also providing a reminder of our not so distant past. I can’t imagine that 42 will be a contender come Oscar time, but it is a feel good movie that brings the Jackie Robinson legacy to a new generation and that may be more important.

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