[12 April 2013]
The story of Jackie Robinson is well known, long ago passed from history to mythology. Brian Helgeland’s 42 tells this tale with an overabundance of reverence and awe, in ways that range from thrilling to pedestrian. No matter. The story of Jackie Robinson remains inspiring, poignant, and indeed, mythic, rising above the low points in the filmmaking.
42, like Lincoln a few months ago, reminds us of the deeply troubling history of race and racism in the United States. It also reassures us that one person at a pivotal moment can overcome popular prejudices and help to change rules and expectations. But both movies observe that history without truly engaging in it, drawing a connection between the blatant abuses of slavery and segregation and the less obvious implications we still face today, in legal cases and political ploys, such as voting rights and college admissions.
In 42, as in other versions of this particular history, the Jackie Robinson story is actually about two men. Here again, the catalyst for Robinson’s entry into America’s pastime is Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. He recognizes that he can both make history and tap into a deep pool of talent by bringing a black ballplayer into the major league. As he makes clear during the film’s early scenes, Rickey understands that his experiment might end before it begins if he doesn’t find the perfect player.
Rickey’s process of selection is telegraphed in a scene where he and his assistant Harold Parrot (T.R. Night) and scout Clyde Sukeforth (Toby Huss) read through files on Negro League players, rejecting Satchell Paige for being too old and Roy Campanella for being too “sweet” (“They’ll eat him alive”). Robinson, a four-sport star at UCLA and then a second lieutenant in the segregated Army during WWII who was court-martialed and acquitted following an incident where he refused to sit in the back of an Army bus. Retelling this story in his office, Rickey makes his case: Robinson (Chadwick Boseman), he believes, will be able to channel his anger and frustration into his performance on the field.
42 is without a doubt a temperate retelling of the Jackie Robinson story. With the exception of one or two scenes, the overt racism and abuse that the real Robinson suffered is largely unseen or understated. Every slur is quickly countered by a pat on the back or an offer of support. Every time violence nears, the film rapidly veers in another direction. Every racist gets a comeuppance.
These choices make Robinson more a symbol than a person. The opening titles declare the film is “based on a true story,” and it is hard not to think that the reality sacrificed lies in Robinson’s complications. While he certainly was a noble figure, 42 portrays him as a saint: he waits for his teammates to come around, and when they don’t, as in the case of Dixie Walker (Ryan Merriman), the team’s success because of the performance of 1948’s Major League Baseball Rookie of the Year, makes clear that Rickey has been right all along. This immaculate portrayal is a bit distracting, given how conditioned we have become to expecting flawed movie heroes and in particular, biopics that reveal mistakes made by real-life figures.
Moreover, for all its conviction regarding Robinson’s heroism, the film displays an unwarranted uncertainty about the potency of his story. When Robinson is harassed on the field by Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk), Robinson suffers visibly; when Rickey encourages him to “show them” out of the field, Robinson does just that, the movie showcasing the triumph with slow motion action and stirring music. When Robinson has his first at-bat against a plainly racist white pitcher, we don’t really need to cut to an African American boy praying for Robinson to do well. The entire audience is thinking it, and it is jarring to hear our wish spoken out loud.
Still, despite the occasional missteps, 42 gets many things just right. It is impossible not to get chills when Robinson walks out onto Ebbets Field for his first big league ballgame. And the baseball game scenes are consistently exciting, bringing Robinson to life as he shows the instincts and natural talent that made him a great baseball player. 42 is also surprisingly funny, such as when Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca (Hamish Linklater) tries awkwardly to invite Robinson to start showering with the rest of the team. Moments between Robinson and his wife, Rachel (Nicole Beharie), are also touching.
42 is that rare movie that works best when it forgets its many subtexts. At once a rousing sports flick and an engaging history lesson, it revels in Robinson’s triumphs, invites us to feel a part of his courageous endeavor and to see easily the villainy of his detractors. Jackie Robinson’s story deserves to be told without cynicism and that is exactly what 42 does.