I guess it shouldn’t be much of a surprise, then, that 42, the new film chronicling Jackie Robinson’s breaking of baseball’s color barrier, would itself be slow, stodgy, and old-fashioned. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. 42 is not a bad film at all. It’s earnest with a capitol E. But, with this subject matter, it should be a grand slam home run instead of the solid double it is.
Chadwick Boseman, a relatively unknown actor with genuine screen presence, stars as Jackie Robinson, plucked from the Kansas City Monarchs of the old Negro League by Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford). As he states in the film’s opening scene, Rickey has a plan to integrate the all-white major leagues, but it’s going to take a special player to do it. Robinson, a World War II commissioned military officer educated at UCLA, is chosen, because he will be able to keep a lid on his temper despite the insane amount of abuse he’ll take in pre-Civil Rights era America. “I want a player who’s got the guts not to fight back,” is how Ford’s Rickey states it early in the film.
One of the great choices writer/director Brian Helgeland makes is to only focus on a short span of Robinson’s life. Bio-pics that take the cradle to the grave approach of telling a celebrated life story often sacrifice depth in favor of plot, simply covering as much ground as possible. Spielberg’s Lincoln was successful largely because it only covered a time span of a few weeks and focused on the fight to abolish slavery. 42 only shows us the two years of Robinson’s life that encompass his minor league season in the Dodger organization and his first year at the major league level. That was wise.
The not-so-great choice Helgeland makes is to focus on Jackie Robinson more as a symbol or figure and less as a three-dimensional human being. This is a film that’s intended to lionize Jackie Robinson. Make no mistake: Jackie Robinson’s contribution to social progress in the mid 20th Century America is enormous and obviously so. It’s not that his life doesn’t deserve the big screen treatment. I just felt we never got to know what made Robinson tick. Boseman is undeniably charismatic and physically acquits himself believably as a Hall of Fame athlete. He’s just never given very much to play outside of being stoic or saintly. The film is clearly more interested in the legend than the man. Similarly, Robinson’s wife Rachel (played by the lovely Nicole Beharie) is limited to just “supportive wife” duty. Did the Robinsons ever have arguments or fights or anything that would provide some dramatic tension? According to this film, they did not.
The showier, more actorly role goes to Ford. As an actor, Harrison Ford has always had an easy, natural charm. For the first time in my memory, he’s playing a part that requires him to take on many character affectations. He’s wearing a bit of a fat suit, a wig, and a freaky pair of eyebrows. Once you get past all the odd trappings, he’s mostly pretty good in the role. Other cast members that stand out include Lucas Black as Pee Wee Reese and Jesse Luken as Eddie Stanky.
Helgeland won an Oscar for his screenplay for LA Confidential, but I wish he’d only written 42. The film looks magnificent (It was beautifully shot by Don Burgess.), but Helgeland doesn’t bring much dramatic weight to the proceedings. Many scenes are dramatically inert, and the entire minor leagues segment of the film could have easily been cut down by ten minutes. The film does occasionally spring to life, like when Alan Tudyck shows up as Ben Chapman, the wildly racist manager of the Philadelphia Phillies. As Robinson tries to bat, Chapman berates him with a litany of racist language. It provides some genuine dramatic tension the film frequently lacks (Tudyck is always great.), and it also shows the ugly hatred Robinson endured.
I really applaud the filmmakers for not pulling punches as it relates to using ugly racist language. While it never approaches Django levels of comical oversaturation, the N word is on frequent display here, and I respected the decision to not just present racism as some sort of vague concept. This kind of language is ugly and hurtful, and this story simply couldn’t be effectively told without it.
I also admired how there is, outside the Robinsons themselves, a pretty fair degree of nuance going on here as well. We don’t just have saintly people and cartoonishly evil, mustache-twirling racists. Yes some, like Chapman, are pretty obviously rotten and painted as villains. But, some characters are ambivalent about Robinson and some are shown to have been truly affected by Robinson (like Derek Phillips as Dodger Bobby Bragen) and changed their worldview.
In 2013, I think we call that “evolving.”
As much as we look at film like that that’s set more than 60 years ago, we often look back at people’s out of date attitudes and cringe. But, how far have we really come? There have been many media reports about current gay professional athletes who are mulling the decision to come out. In the US, we’ve never see that before. We’ve only ever had gay players come out after their on-the-field careers are done. It’s been reported that in the coming weeks as many as four current NFL players might possibly come out on the same day. How will players that breach that public threshold be treated? Will opposing teams and fans pelt them with the F word? Will they need to have the guts not to fight back?
That will be a testament to see how far we’ve come since 1947.