‘42’: Jackie Robinson Film A Base Hit, Not A Home Run

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Chadwick Boseman
Chadwick Boseman, pictured at the 2013 premiere of "42," will star as "Black Panther," a superhero in the Marvel Universe.

"42," the new movie about Jackie Robinson’s stressful first year with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 is a modestly entertaining effort, but it's also flawed, rather listless, somewhat inaccurate and not what a monumental historical figure like Jackie deserves.

It took 66 years for Hollywood to produce a major film about Jackie, the first black man to play in the Major Leagues in the 20th century (a number of blacks played in the 19th century, while several Hispanics and American Indians were in the big leagues long before him, but that’s a separate discussion).

It's unclear why it took so long for the studios to undertake a movie about such an important moment in American history, although he did star in "The Jackie Robinson Story," a 1950 biographical film that proved that while he was an excellent ballplayer, he was no actor (not even while portraying himself).

Spike Lee reportedly planned for years to direct a film about Jackie but that project never saw the light of day.

So, what we have now in the year 2013 is a rather tepid, uninspiring and somewhat lethargic depiction of America in the immediate postwar era -- something we could have easily seen on network TV’s movie of the week.

The casting, in many cases, leaves much to be desired.

The young actor playing Jackie, Chadwick Boseman, bears a striking facial and physical resemblance to the real thing, but the superficial script fails to depict Jackie as a flesh-and-blood human being, a proud man who was as reluctant to subject himself to constant racial abuse as he was determined to succeed and overcome bigotry.

Boseman’s Jackie comes across as rather two-dimensional and uninteresting. However, since writer-director Brian Helgeland clearly intended the film to serve as a kind of "hagiography" for Jackie, perhaps they couldn't afford to portray him as a fully fleshed-out character.

Jackie’s pre-Dodger life (fascinating and singular enough to warrant its own movie) is hardly even hinted at – he was college-educated, a multisport star at UCLA and also an officer in the military during World War II. Unlike the placid, even timid Jackie depicted in this film, the real "42" was a tough, feisty brawler (despite the restrictions on his behavior that were imposed by his circumstances).

Moreover, Jackie seems to be a passive participant in the story of his own life.

Indeed, Harrison Ford’s Branch Rickey, the Dodgers’ courageous president/general manager who first signed the ballplayer, dominates much of the time. Rickey was a rich character himself, a cigar-chomping, astute businessman with deeply held Christian values who spouted Scripture and was called "Mahatma."

But Ford (wearing what looks like a prosthetic nose) plays Rickey rather like an over-the-hill clown, something the brilliant innovator Rickey wasn't. I suspect Helgeland gave Ford a large (and entertainingly cartoonish) role since he is the only real "superstar" among the cast.

Not to underplay Rickey’s important role in this saga, but the film should have focused more on Jackie and his turmoil and inner conflicts than Rickey’s blustering.

Leo "The Lip" Durocher was one of the most colorful and eccentric figures in baseball history, an extremely foul-mouthed, pugnacious, hard-drinking, womanizing, amoral and somewhat uncontrolled philistine (that is, like most every other ballplayer of the era). Durocher was also short, roly-poly and quite homely.

But in ‘42’, Durocher is portrayed by the tall, slender, handsome Christopher Meloni (although they got the bald part right) as a rather bland personality.

The film also inaccurately states that Durocher was banned for the 1947 season because some group with a name like the "Catholic League of Decency" protested to then-baseball commissioner Happy Chandler about Durocher’s adulterous, playboy lifestyle.

While Leo clearly enjoyed the nightlife and slept with women not his wife, he was suspended that year for associating with gamblers, not for pilandering.

The film also commits a grave disservice to the memory of Dixie Walker, the great Dodgers outfielder who was one of the top National League stars of the 1940s. The Alabama native did indeed ask Branch Rickey to be traded rather than play with a black man; however, Walker grew to respect Jackie greatly, calling him an “outstanding athlete” and later apologizing for his previous actions.

After retiring as a player, Walker coached and managed in the both the minors and majors, teaching hitting skills to many black and Hispanic players in the 1950s and 1960s.

Since Dixie passed away more than 30 years ago, his voice can never be heard (dead men can’t sue).

The film also leaves out some key figures from the 1947 saga -- where, for example, is Walter O’Malley?

That year, the redoubtable O’Malley was Dodgers team attorney and prominent shareholder. He and Rickey were bitter enemies, but O’Malley played a crucial role in picking Jackie to break the race barrier in baseball.

Excluding O’Malley (who later took over the Dodgers and moved them to Los Angeles a decade later) makes absolutely no sense and likely sacrificed a lot entertaining conflict and drama the film desperately needed.

But perhaps the most egregious scene in the film concerns the mythical “hug” that Dodgers shortstop (and Kentucky native) PeeWee Reese allegedly gave Jackie on the field in Cincinnati in a show of "solidarity" as Reds fans hurled vicious racial abuse at Robinson. There are doubts this hug/embrace ever really occurred, but it makes for a warm-and-fuzzy moment, the type of legend baseball mythologists love. But what makes this segment truly nauseating is how Helgeland prolongs and milks it – he even frames a side-story where a little white boy reluctantly joins his father in insulting Jackie, then cuts away to suggest he knows he’s done something wrong. It is an artificial and ham-handed moment you wouldn't expect from a respected professional filmmaker like Helgeland (who made the classic "L.A. Confidential," among other works).

On the whole, it would be impossible to realistically depict the saga of Jackie Robinson and baseball integration (and all the complex attendant back-stories) in a two-hour Hollywood flick designed for mass entertainment.

Despite that, "42" should have been a far superior film. Instead of portraying Robinson as a hapless puppet surrounded by powerful white men (both good and evil) who determine his fate, depicting a three-dimensional Jackie (with warts and all) would have made for a far more satisfying cinematic experience.

 

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