Review of “42”

“Continuum Global News” will return next week, but better late than never, here’s my review of 42:

Jackie Robinson was, without question, the most important baseball player of the 20th century. While Babe Ruth may have been the most transcendent star, and Curt Flood proved a pivotal figure in the game’s labor history, Robinson’s effects did not simply stop at baseball. No, his effect was felt far beyond the diamond. How important was Jackie Robinson? Well, no less than Martin Luther King Jr. declared him an important member and symbol of the civil right movements. And, least we forget, Robinson was a great ballplayer as well, a career .311 hitter, a six-time All-Star, the Rookie of the Year in 1947 and MVP of 1949. Who knows what type of career he may have had (he didn’t make his MLB debut until age 28) if not for segregation and the war?

So given this, it’s sort of surprising that it’s taken this long for a modern biopic on Robinson. There was a biopic starring the man himself in 1950, and a TV movie about his court-martial in 1990 (starring Andre Braugher as Robinson), but nothing else. But, I guess good things come to those who wait, because 42, although far, far from perfect, is a fine movie that does well at honoring Robinson while also educating those who perhaps are not as familiar with the story.

(MORE AFTER JUMP)

First off, let’s talk about the things the movie does very well. For one, the cast is excellent, ranging from the until-now-unknown Chadwick Boseman as Robinson to Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey.

While Boseman isn’t perfect as Robinson (his voice, especially, sounds nothing like the rather squeaky voice that the real man had), he does a good job, having a calm defiant strength while actually looking like a guy who could have been one of the greatest athletes in baseball history (although a former minor leaguer named Jasha Balcom did many of the baseball scenes). But it is Ford who is especially noteworthy, since for the most part he is able to escape the fact that, well, he’s Harrison Ford. Here’s what I mean: with certain actors, no matter how good they are, you can’t help but think of them as the actor, not the character they are playing. With Harrison Ford, unless he’s playing Indiana Jones, Han Solo and maybe Jack Ryan, you just think of him as Harrison Ford. I can’t even think of what the name of the President in Air Force One was… I just remember it was Harrison Ford.

That isn’t a problem here: Ford disappears into Rickey, the religious, folksy General Manager who, the movie makes a point of highlighting, signed Robinson just as much for profit as he was for any type of social justice (in fact, early on it looks like he is in it JUST for the profit).

That last bit, actually, leads to another thing that 42 does well (I’ll return to the cast when needed): it doesn’t shy away from the ugly past. Oh, if they wanted to, they probably could have gone the full-Disney and sanitized the past to make it look like everybody loved Robinson except one or two bad people, and that the management of the Dodgers were saints acting as one to desegregate baseball by bringing in Robinson.

Thankfully, they instead go basically as close to reality as the PG-13 rating will allow. The “N-Word” is used many times, especially by Phillies Manager and overall racist Ben Chapman (played by Alan Tudyk, who normally does either Science Fiction or Comedy fare), who it is also pointed out, was also an Anti-Semite (there is a reference to how he once threw epithets at Hank Greenberg) and Anti-Italian (towards Joe DiMaggio). The attempted petition by Kirby Higbe, Dixie Walker and others against Robinson’s participation is shown in detail, as is the Jim Crow racism of the South. Even ugliness not directly related to Robinson, such as Leo Durocher‘s suspension (for, amongst other reasons, carrying on an affair with actress Laraine Day, who at the time was married to somebody else) for the 1947 season, is referenced.

Writer/director Brian Helgeland’s eye for detail didn’t just stop there: he goes out of his way to make one feel like they are actually watching the old Brooklyn Dodgers, a team that has over time become almost legend rather than history. Ebbets Field is resurrected through CGI, Red Barber calls games from the “Catbird’s Seat” thanks to John McGinley, Ralph Branca shows up and has a rather funny scene with Robinson at one point, people listen to games on the radio in the streets of Flatbush- good touches for anybody who has ever read or seen a documentary about the period. The costumes and other production values are great, too.

But, alas, it is not a perfect film. None are. For one thing, it has the usual problems that come with biopics: they can’t exactly take any risks, and we already know how it is will end. Not to mention the filmmakers always have to sometimes make things up, move some characters around, or transfer certain aspects of the story from one time, place or person to another time, place or person so that the movie could flow better. In general, 42 is able to keep this rearranging and creative license to the minimum- I can think of only one major divergence from what actually happened, and the smaller changes and inventions definitely fit the movie format well (for example, Pee-Wee Reese’s “Maybe tomorrow we’ll all wear 42” quote was actually said by outfielder Gene Hermanski, and Robinson would have already been acquainted- or at least familiar- with African-American sportswriter Wendell Smith, who was one of the most respected Negro League writers). In fact, the things that annoyed me as a baseball fan were rather what wasn’t included. For example, there’s little-to-no reference to how Larry Doby integrated the American League mere months after Robinson made his Brooklyn debut (Doby’s name shows up briefly on a chalkboard chart of players who could possibly break the color line), and the movie’s ending comes years before Robinson’s most famous play (the steal of home on Yogi Berra in 1955). Still, that just is me being an armchair producer.

You see, the main problem with 42 is that, well, it’s kind of average. A good kind of average, but average nonetheless. Other than Ford and the excellent production values/devotion to detail, nothing really stands out. It’s like eating an okay food that is good but not particularly memorable. Yeah, you’ll eat it again, but it’s nothing special. And that is sort of what happens with 42: everything is good, but little is great. But in the end, that’s okay- it’s far better than what may have happened if the film was not in such good hands.

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