Directed by: Brian Helgeland.
Written by: Brian Helgeland.
Starring: Chadwick Boseman (Jackie Robinson), Harrison Ford (Branch Rickey), Nicole Beharie (Rachel Robinson), Christopher Meloni (Leo Durocher), Ryan Merriman (Dixie Walker), Lucas Black (Pee Wee Reese), Andre Holland (Wendell Smith), Alan Tudyk (Ben Chapman), Hamish Linklater (Ralph Branca), T.R. Knight (Harold Parrott), John C. McGinley (Red Barber), Toby Huss (Clyde Sukeforth), Max Gail (Burt Shotton), Brad Beyer (Kirby Higbe), James Pickens Jr. (Mr. Brock), Gino Anthony Pesi (Joe Garagiola), Brett Cullen (Clay Hopper), Jesse Luken (Eddie Stanky), Jamey Holliday (Pete Reiser), Derek Phillips (Bobby Bragan), Jamie Ruehling (Spider Jorgensen).
Sometimes even a movie that was never made effects how you see a movie that was. Such is the case with Brian Helgeland’s 42 – a solid, respectable movie about Jackie Robinson, mainly focusing on his first year as a Major League player in 1947, when he broke the color barrier. There is nothing really wrong with 42 – I cannot deny that the movie moved me emotionally, or that it is well-made, well-acted and well-written, even if the movie never transcends its genre. Like any number of sports movies – from Glory Road to The Blind Side – it offers a simple view of race relations in America, and would be a very good movie to show to older children to inspire discussions about racism. And yet, I while watching the movie, I could not help but think I would much rather be watching the Jackie Robinson movie that Spike Lee tried for years to get made, and never found a studio willing to give him the money to do so. Perhaps Lee’s movie would have been better, perhaps it would have been worse – we’ll never know because it was never made. But one thing is for sure – it wouldn’t be as straight forward or simplistic about the issue of race as 42 is. This wasn’t the first or last time Lee wasn’t able to make a movie he wanted – when Will Smith was looking for a director for Ali, he apparently told Lee that he didn’t have “wide enough appeal” to make the film – which Lee (most likely correctly) read as he didn’t appeal enough to white audiences. That’s a shame. If there are two sports figures in the 20th Century that are quintessential African American stories, they are Jackie Robinson and Mohammed Ali. And one of the most acclaimed filmmakers of his generation, who also happens to be African American, wasn’t hired to direct either one. That’s a shame.
But, as I said, that doesn’t really matter when it comes to the quality of 42 – just something I find to be an interesting aside. As a movie unto itself, 42 is pretty good. It doesn’t deliver anything overly challenging – its message is simple, racism is wrong, and people should be judged based on who they are, and what their abilities are, and not by the color of their skin. It’s no more complicated than that.
Yet, while I know it sounds like I am being dismissive of the movie, I don’t mean to be. What 42 does, it does very well. As Robinson, newcomer Chadwick Boseman does an excellent job. True, I wish the movie made Jackie a little more complicated than he is – this is essentially the same type of role that Sidney Poitier played all through the 1950s and 1960s – that of the strong, proud, respectable black man – but Boseman does it as well as can be expected. He has some nice scenes with Nicole Beharie as his wife Rachel – the two have an easy chemistry together, and you can feel the love between them. Boseman is at his best during the scenes when you can tell he’s seething on the inside, but has to maintain a calm, cool exterior – he knows any fight he gets in, even if he didn’t start it, will be blamed on him, and will set him and other black ballplayers back for years to come. Only once does he truly lose it – and even then, he makes sure he is alone when he does. The other major role in the film is played by Harrison Ford, as Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey, who decides unilaterally that his team is going to break the color barrier. At first, Ford, nearly unrecognizable under a lot of makeup, and with that weird twang in his voice, and his performance feel like a mere stunt – but as the movie moves along, he grows more comfortable. It still isn’t a great performance by Ford – but unlike the last few movies he’s been in, he doesn’t seem to be sleepwalking through the performance, so that’s something.
The movie probably works better in individual moments than it does in total. While the movie is mostly solid and respectable, and a little dull at times, there are moments you are unlikely to forget. – Lucas Black’s Peewee Reese going over to Jackie and putting his arm around him in front of the fans in Cincinnati as the crowd hurls boos and racial slurs at Robinson is a wonderful moment. Christopher Meloni’s Leo Durocher (who will eventually be suspended because of another kind of “moral lapse”) lashing out at his team for signing a petition to not have Robinson play with them. And the scenes that are really spectacular – and unforgettable – involve Alan Tudyk, playing Phillies manager Ben Chapman, standing outside the dugout and yelling one ugly racial slur after another at Robinson. Tudyk is mainly known as a comedic actor, and he plays Chapman with a kind of “class clown” attitude. He says the most ugly, vile, racist things imaginable, but does it all in good cheer, and doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about when he’s questioned on it. In a few short scenes, Tudyk delivers the movie’s best performance – and an ugly reminder of the kind of racism that not that long ago was commonplace.
The scenes that I really felt Spike Lee would have done something interesting with are between Boseman’s Robinson and Andre Holland, who plays Wendell Smith, a black baseball reporter, who has to write his copy on his typewriter from the bleachers, because he’s not allowed in the press box. He becomes Robinson’s unofficial chronicler – and is hired by Rickey to make sure Robinson gets around okay. I have a feeling that when these two black men – both on the outside of their respective fields, not because they’re not good enough, but because of their race – were alone with each other, the dialogue they had wouldn’t be quite as PC as writer-director Brian Helgeland has it in this movie. Both performances are willing and able – but the screenplay lets them down.
In short 42 is a solid, respectable movie – in baseball terms, a well hit double. What it does, it does well, and I have a hard imagining that too many audiences would dislike the movie – it is a crowd pleasing, inspirational movie. Personally though, I just wish there was enough room for Spike Lee’s version of the same story – it may not have been as crowd pleasing or inspirational, but it most likely would have been a more honest and hard hitting movie. In short, it would have been the Jackie Robinson movie made for intelligent adults. 42 is kid’s stuff – solid kid’s stuff – but kid’s stuff just the same.