More than just a baseball biopic
It’s been a while since audiences last had a baseball film they were excited to see. If the weekend’s box office is any indication, 42 was exactly what the doctor ordered (and Scary Movie 5 was not, notice we didn’t bother review it on this periodical). 42 covers recent-post-WWII America through Jackie Robinson’s rookie season with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Although the film is very much a straight forward biopic about the legendary athlete breaking the color barrier in professional baseball, it is also a true story of how one person overcame seemingly insurmountable adversity in order to make a permanent change for the best while succeeding.
Fresh-faced newcomer Chadwick Boseman plays the famed American icon. Boseman’s performance is nothing short of leading man material, and it’s no surprise based on the amount of talent Boseman took with him to the role as he is also a director, writer and producer in addition to his acting career. After his debut appearance in 42, Boseman will probably be acting full time. He becomes everything we’ve been taught about Jackie Robinson since grade school. The amount of emotional weight he shows in his eyes and obvious relishment he takes in playing a famous former ball player is not unlike Ray Liotta’s performance as Shoeless Joe Jackson in Field of Dreams. Boseman’s Robinson isn’t just a role model for African-Americans, but for all Americans. What 42 does well with its titular character is to make Jackie Robinson a role model for every single American who ever has or ever will face adversity in direct defiance of society (even if that society is inherently racist). One aspect I wished the film played up more was Robinson’s college years. The film takes an especially long amount of time to show Robinson’s athletic prowess and almost never conveys the intelligent, college-educated Robinson who graduated UCLA. The only wit we get from Robinson is quick, snappy comebacks at reporters. The film also makes it look like Robinson had anger management issues. It’s understandable that Robinson often grew frustrated from the blatant racism in America, but this film shows him throwing tantrums much too often compared to the amount of time he does other activities on screen.
Harrison Ford stars in a beefed-up supporting role as Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey. While Ford’s performance feels campy at times (constant cigar chomping, as well as an over-the-top old man voice), he is generally solid throughout the film and is certainly the most interesting character depicted. Ford’s Rickey is a man who wants a black athlete on his team not because it’s morally correct and he wants to make a change for equality, (although he later admits as much, anyway, I suppose in some sort of Hollywood-style movie character redemption) but because he sees himself drawing in an entire other market of African-American baseball fans who would pay to see Robinson play. Ford’s Rickey reminds us the only color that matters is green. After seeing the makeup job done for Rickey’s eyebrows in 42, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Razzies added a makeup category as I expected Ford’s hideously fake eyebrows to float off at any moment.
Alan Tudyk (Serenity, 3:10 to Yuma, Transformers: Dark of the Moon) is as close to any one single antagonist (racism and intolerance are the real antagonists in this film) as we’re offered in 42. Tudyk plays Philadelphia Phillies skipper Ben Chapman. In an extended scene, Chapman stands outside of the Phillies dugout and proceeds to put the plantation owners of Django Unchained to explicit racism “shame” while Robinson is at bat. Tudyk gives the best performance of the film, visually becoming the ignorance reflected in his own character’s words and actions. Chaplin later attempts to back up his actions to reporters by further revealing more racism in baseball that extended beyond African-Americans an onto Jewish- and Italian-American players as well.
Writer/director Brian Helgeland does an excellent job capturing the essence, culture, look and sound of a post-war America going through a long-awaited cultural upheaval. One shot I found interesting (and something Helgeland should’ve called attention to) was after the birth of the Robinsons’ first child in the infant ward of the hospital. Despite all of the “white’s only” or “colored’s only” signs shown throughout the film, the Robinsons’ baby is in the same infant ward as four or five white babies. I think this should have been a more profound point as every single baby in the ward was, for all intents and purposes, completely, unequivocally equal due to their stage in life. Another great aspect of this scene was Robinson’s declaration to his son to be a good father. This goes beyond race and baseball to the realm of fathers and sons, showing this film’s ability to connect with broad appeal.
Although Ford’s performance is over-the-top at times and the film runs long to due a few unnecessary scenes that slow the pacing, 42 is a great film about Jackie Robinson, becoming a man, overcoming adversity and a country that needed to change for the better. There are no particularly great gameplay shots (mostly just Robinson stealing home, hitting homers and learning to play first base) but the performances of the entire cast make the film a worthwhile narrative into a little slice of American history.