A movie review
By Dwight Hobbes
Were baseball, back in 1947, the boring, high-priced waste of time and money it is today, you’d have to wonder why Jackie Robinson went to the trouble. In those days, though, it was an exciting sport to watch and, of course, to play.
Athletes loved the game. They had to. Unlike today’s lackadaisical, overpaid prima donnas, even the stars of the sport then worked jobs in the off-season, selling furniture, pumping gas, farming, what have you. When Robinson came along, it was an activity of the common man — spectator and player alike — and could legitimately be called America’s national pastime.
As such, it was a bastion of the national creed: bitter, venomously entrenched racism. Robinson went to the trouble and endured pure hell against which he miraculously prevailed because he refused to be denied the right to make a living doing what he loved. As good a living, anyway, as Major League Baseball players made back then.
42, pretty much flawlessly crafted (you have to pick nits to find problems), does Jackie Robinson admirable justice in the hands of director-screenwriter Brian Helgeland. Hegeland doesn’t make this a message movie, which would’ve been an easy trap to fall into. He goes to the true heart of the story: what went on in the hearts and souls of Jackie Robinson and Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey.
Hegeland delivers fascinating drama, no hat trick when you consider everyone knows the ending — that Jackie becomes the first Black athlete to play big-league ball. Hegeland threads a tight script, subtly directs, and has you hoping, desperately at one point, Robinson succeeds.
Importantly, Brian Hegeland, paying homage to a hero, rendered Jackie Robinson as a flesh-and-blood human being who, in fact, almost collapsed under the pressure, giving the film’s triumphant climax that much more power.
In filmmaking, especially Hollywood, “based on a true story” does not mean every single thing on the screen happened exactly that way in real life. It means the general facts are there. The general facts, as related, quite compel here.
Ultimately, it is a soul-rending saga that, by turns, makes you sad, makes you mad and, after it’s done, makes you glad.
Chadwick Boseman, starring as Jackie Robinson, ironically is the weakest in the cast. His performance relies more on his good looks and facial gestures than it does commitment to character. Still, he carries it off.
Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey is a surprise, waxing authentic with understated authority. Christopher Meloni enlivens Dodger’s manager Leo Deurocher with down-to-earth grit. Alan Dudyk gives race-baiting Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman frightening gravity.
Nicole Beharie may well be the find of the year. Portraying Rachel Robinson, she’s splendid, at times stunning, possessed of presence, range and nuance, absolutely owning the role, giving you an idea what kind of strength Jackie turned to on those days when he just couldn’t take it anymore.
After the final frame, 42 offers an informative this-is-what-happened-to-whom-later segment: in a list, Robinson winning Rookie-of-the-Year, Chapman losing his job, and the little kid Jackie inspired first-hand turned out to be Ed Charles of the 1969 World Series Champion New York Mets.
A sad aspect of Jackie Robinson’s success is that Branch Rickey’s signing him indeed spelled the decimation of the Negro Baseball Leagues as more White owners got in on what turned out to be a good thing and started raiding Black clubs, hiring away a wealth of talent. They should’ve stuck mention of that in there somewhere.
Ultimately, this is quality fare. 42 engages, artfully entertains, and leaves you walking away with a memorable experience.
Dwight Hobbes is author of the play Robinson, commissioned by Minnesota African American Museum & Cultural Center. He welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.