Jackie Robinson’s breaking of baseball’s color line with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 is pretty unquestionably the greatest story of heroism in the history of American sports, and after many years of fits and starts- many of them involving Spike Lee- it’s finally the subject of a major Hollywood biopic, “42.”
The film, written and directed by Brian Helgeland, tells the Robinson story in a pretty straightforward manner, not really taking any big risks or veering especially far from formula or expectations. And at times it gets rather hokey and corny. But you know what? I loved the hell out of this movie. This is baseball’s Greatest Story Ever Told, and Helgeland tells it very, very well.
“42” focuses on the roughly two-year period starting with Robinson’s signing by the Dodgers in late 1945, covering his minor-league year in Montreal in 1946 and then his historic rookie season with the Dodgers in 1947. It shows general manager Branch Rickey bringing Robinson to the Dodgers, Robinson winning over skeptical teammates, and eventually proving wrong the racists who had kept the game segregated for the previous seven decades.
The story is well-structured and slickly directed, hitting all the famous spots: Robinson stepping on the field for the first time, Pee Wee Reese putting his arm around Robinson in Cincinnati, and the spiking by Enos Slaughter, and ending on the “big game” that was the Dodgers clinching the NL pennant (the Dodgers wouldn’t win the World Series for eight more years.)
While “42” is at times a feel-good sports story, it treats its subject with appropriate gravity. And the movie certainly can’t be accused of soft-pedaling the racism Robinson faced, from fans, teammates, opponents and even a hotel operator- not in the Deep South, but in Philadelphia. The film’s biggest villain of all is Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk), shown standing outside the dugout screaming nonstop racial slurs at Robinson. If Ben Chapman were alive today, I’m sure, he’d be furiously forwarding emails about Obama and his billion-dollar vacations.
I’m sure baseball historians will find a few inaccuracies; I for one can’t wait for Keith Olbermann to write a 2,000-word blog post detailing them all. And while it’s been awhile since I’ve read a Robinson biography, but I didn’t notice anything too glaringly wrong.
Chadwick Boseman, a heretofore largely unknown actor, does a great job as Robinson, conveying both his heroism and quiet anger. Nicole Beharie plays his wife, Rachel, and she’s very good too; you can actually see palpable sexual chemistry between Jackie and Rachel, something that’s rare for a movie about long-ago historical figures.
Ford’s Branch Rickey voice certainly takes some getting used to, but ultimately the performance works. And perhaps more importantly, the movie gets Rickey exactly right. Was he a good-hearted man eager to do the right thing for the game of baseball, his country and humanity in general, or was he a crass opportunist, out for winning and riches? Most likely, he was both.. And this isn’t another one of those racial history lessons in which the white guy is the primary hero and the African-Americans are just pawns. This movie is Jackie Robinson’s story much more than it’s Branch Rickey’s.
Tudyk, normally a very likable actor, is sufficiently menacing as the racist manager Chapman, although one of the few false notes is played by T.R. Knight, late of Grey’s Anatomy, as a Rickey underling who first opposes Robinson’s signing and then slowly evolves into a Jackie superfan; he’s less a character than a stand-in for the attitudes of fans in general.
The movie also, wisely, keeps the focus narrow. Lefty sportswriter Dave Zirin wrote a column last week, before seeing the movie, with a list of “five fears about ’42.’ Those fears included that it would “whitewash” certain subjects, such as Robinson’s lifelong political activism, his loyalty to and break from the Republican Party, his opposition to the Vietnam War, the time he testified against Paul Robeson before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the role Daily Worker sportswriter Lester Rodney played in the integration of the game.
“42,” of course, covers none of this. But that’s understandable. A Jackie Robinson biopic focused on politics, Congressional hearings and Vietnam, with an openly Communist hero, would have been something of a tough sell, and would probably also need to be five hours long. The “42” we did get was over two hours anyway, and it took years to get made. I personally would probably enjoy a movie like that- and perhaps Zirin should try to produce one- but I prefer the one that actually was made.
And yes, it gets a little too cute at times. Way too much of the story is told through the eyes of little kids at games, which seems an idea lifted from “The Natural.” The closing title sequence, which creates the impression that everyone on the right side of the Robinson question lived happily ever after and everyone on the wrong side didn’t, ignores Robinson’s oft-tragic post-baseball life, which included both the death of his son and his own eventual death in 1972 at age 53. And at one point Robinson utters what has become the hoariest cliche of reality show contestants: “I’m not here to make friends.”
But even so, “42” is overall a winning effort. For a whole generation to learn the Jackie Robinson story from this movie would be no terrible thing.