Almost everyone agrees that Jackie Robinson -- the man who broke baseball's color barrier in 1947 -- was a genuinely heroic and important American figure.
Robinson, who died in 1972 at the age of 53, was an intense ballplayer and an intense public figure. He rightly has been lionized and honored by professional baseball -- the sport that took an ungodly amount of time getting around to allowing black players onto its fields. The grass may have been green, but the sport remained lily white, as many have observed.
42 -- a movie focused on Robinson's early career -- turns out to be a solidly conceived look at the former Brooklyn Dodger, a historical highlight reel served up with a generous helping of baseball nostalgia and some feeling for the turbulent racial climate of the period.
Written and directed by Brian Helgeland, 42 does a decent job of showing some of the difficulties faced by Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) after Dodger president and general manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) decided that it was time to expand baseball's diversity, as well as its market share.
42, of course, is not the first movie to focus on Robinson. The actor played himself in a corny 1950 biopic which you can watch in its entirely on You Tube. After I saw 42, I watched The Jackie Robinson Story again. It, too, provides some of the highlights of Robinson's ascent from the old Negro leagues to the minor leagues (he broke in with the Montreal Royals), as well as his early and often difficult days with the Dodgers. When it comes to baseball prowess, both movies emphasize Robinson's speed, base-stealing abilities, power and competitive fire.
Obviously, production values have taken a quantum leap since 1950: It's now possible for filmmakers to recreate some of the long-vanished ballparks in which Robinson plied his trade: Ebbets Field (in Brooklyn), the Polo Grounds (in Manhattan), Crosley Field (in Cincinnati) and Shibe Park (in Philadelphia). As a kid, I was a rabid New York Giants fan, so it was an exquisite pleasure to see the Polo Grounds resurrected for a fleeting moment -- even as a CGI-created phantom.
The two principal characters in Helgeland's traditionally conceived -- if abbreviated -- bio-pic are Robinson, well-played by Boseman, who physically resembles the first black Major Leaguer, and Ford, who portrays Rickey as a jut-jawed, cigar-smoking executive who minced few words and who deftly balanced both profit and social motives.
Nicole Beharie plays Robinson's wife Rachel, a woman portrayed as ceaselessly supportive of her husband during his time of trial, frustration and achievement.
As is the case with many baseball movies, Robinson forms a relationship a with newspaperman. As a black man writing for a black-owned newspaper in Pittsburgh, Wendell Smith (Andre Holland) was denied admission to the Baseball Writers Association of America. I've read that it was Smith who first suggested to Rickey that he consider Robinson.
Helgeland, who directed A Knight's Tale and who wrote the screenplays for movies such as L.A. Confidential and Mystic River, doesn't flinch from the racial ugliness that Robinson faced, concentrating much of it into a single game. Phillies' manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) crudely hurls racial insults at Robinson. Rickey insisted that Robinson not fight back, that he have the courage not respond to the abuse.
Interestingly, the movie covers only Robinson's first year in the Majors, stopping short of the rest of his 10-year career and the life that followed baseball. By his second year in the Majors -- or so I've read -- Robinson began responding to those who taunted him. I'd have liked to see some of that.
Helgeland populates the movie with names familiar from that now-hallowed period in baseball. We meet pitcher Ralph Branca (Hamish Linklater), manager Leo Durocher (Christopher Meloni), shortstop Pee-Wee Reese (Lucas Black) and right fielder Dixie Walker (Ryan Merriman). Reese, an acknowledged Dodger leader, made a point of accepting Robinson, as did Branca. Walker was less tolerant, as were the many other Dodgers who signed a petition protesting the fact that they were being asked to take the field with a black player.
In many ways, 42 is an overly burnished bit of socially-conscious baseball hagiography. Helgeland makes little attempt to deliver Robinson in his entirety.
Looking at Robinson's time in baseball through a rear view mirror, the racism of the period can seem as blatant as it was detestable, an obvious target for today's audiences. Robinson, of course, knew that his battle with racism didn't end when he left the playing field, where in his first season he took Rookie of the Year honors and helped the Dodgers win the pennant.
Although it falls short of Golden Glove movie status, 42 succeeds within the parameters it sets for itself. Helgeland seems to have wanted to give his movie an old-fashioned spin that didn't allow for much of the righteous anger about racism that Robinson had no trouble expressing. The movie is about Robinson; it isn't made from his point of view.
If we're lucky, though, 42 will familiarize a new generation with one of the enduring figures of American life, a hero whose discipline, dedication and courage far exceeded whatever virtues we associate with the comic-book characters who seem to have taken over American movies these days. 42 may be an idealized portrait, but that could be precisely what Helgeland wanted and what he thought Robinson deserved.