Few names command such unconditional respect and adoration than Jackie Robinson. The first baseball player to break the color barrier, and a fantastic player in his own right, Robinson proved to be not only a force of change in baseball, but may well have been the first initial success of the Civil Rights movement, more than a decade before a formal movement even existed. On top of that, Jackson’s life provides one of the best tales of courage and triumph in the face of adversity to be found in the modern era – he was at once a civil rights icon, a baseball legend, and an American hero, one we rightly revere to this very day.So it’s kind of surprising there has never been a movie about such a famous man and story, not since, ironically enough, a movie starring Jackie Robinson as himself from 1950. There have been attempts, from folks ranging from Spike Lee to Robert Redford all trying and failing to get a movie about Robinson made. With the 66th Anniversary of Robinson’s first game this coming Monday, it is perhaps all-too fitting that 42 comes out today, marking the first major film about Robinson’s storied baseball career. That said, this film really did come out of left field – were it not for trailers attached to Django Unchained, I’d have never even hear about it. Even then, for such a major film, the names behind it are mostly Bush league at most, the biggest name attached being Harrison Ford, cast as Dodger’s GM Branch Rickey. It’s directed by Brian Helgeland, who also wrote the screenplay, who hasn’t directed a movie in a decade – and we all know how well that worked for Hunger Games - and whose most notable effort was A Knight’s Tale. The cast is filled with a bunch of minor league prospects, mostly first timers and TV actors, including the role of Jackie Robinson given to Chadwick Boseman in his first at bat in a title role. Still, as a long time baseball fan – as if you couldn’t tell from all the sports metaphors – and of Robinson as well, to say nothing of having been intrigued by the trailers, I figured I’d give 42 a chance to play ball.
So, does this Jackie Robinson biopic knock it out of the park, or would this film have been better left warming the bench? Pack the bleachers as I step up to the plate and take a swing at 42.
The film opens at the tail end of World War II, as the Brooklyn Dodgers struggle to both find an edge on the field and to fill the bleachers, GM Branch Rickey makes the controversial call to bring in the first black player in the MLB. He finds this player in a Negro Leagues star by the name of Jackie Robinson, whom he offers the chance to play for the Dodgers, while warning him that the road ahead if he does so will not be easy, and quite often be dangerous. Robinson accepts, and in his first season, faces off against unimaginable prejudice on and off the field, while finding as many people who stand behind him or stand beside him, as he changes baseball and the nation forever.
The story is familiar to almost everyone, no doubt most of you included, and this is a film that could have very easily gotten mired in clichés, or overdone either the darker elements of the tale or the heroic aspects of it, and instead manages to tread the line between them both with a master’s touch, all while remaining entertaining from start to finish. It manages to capture both Jackie Robinson the legend and Jackie Robinson the man, a mix of inspiration and contemplation that escapes most modern biopic. Much the same, it does not shy away from the abhorrent and often disturbing treatment Robinson receives – nor does it ignore the courage of those who stood by his side, showing there were no shortage of bold men who stood with the consciousness and common humanity instead of the country, and the result is one of the rare movies that addressed racial tensions without either making monsters out of one side or glossing over them. Of course, the big hero of the film is Robinson, and the film makes a point to show every side of him, his family, his gentlemanly public persona, and his deeply frustrated private one. All in all, the story and script for this timeless tale are expertly handled.
Better still, the movies cast provides a surprisingly fantastic ensemble performance that in and of itself further helps the film come to terms with the legend. Harrison Ford gives what may be his best performance since the turn of the millennium, chewing the scenery and chewing cigars in gruff accent and unrecognizable under the makeup as GM Rickley, capturing both the brash capitalist that marked his public persona, as well as the conflicted man who couldn’t ignore his consciousness any longer, and worked so hard to get Robinson as a small act of redemption. TV actors Christopher Meloni and John C. McGinley, as the cynical womanizing Dodgers manager Leo Durocher and the prose-gifted sportscaster Red Barber respectively, both go deep into their roles and leave impressions just as deep – both prove they are more than capable of silver screen roles, something Meloni especially needed to prove given his major role in the upcoming Man of Steel. Lucas Black, as Hall of Famer Pee Wee Reese, whose role in befriending and publicly supporting Robinson in real life makes him something of an overlooked hero in the tale gets plenty of attention here – he serves both as the voice of the contemporary audience, and provides some of the movies most cheer-worthy moments, including his famous embrace of Robinson before a crowd of hecklers. Much the same, Alan Tudyk, best known for roles in cartoons and comedies, loses himself in the role of the vile and racist manager of the Philadelphia Phillies – even the folks left unflinching by the string of racial epitaphs in Django Unchianed will be left with mouths agape after a vitriolic diatribe that even left the people of 1940s America disgusted.
Of course, the real breakout stars of this show are the triage of relative first-comers playing the films three main black characters. Andre Holland, as journalist Wendell Smith, and Nicole Beharie, as Rachel Robinson (Jackie’s wife obviously) both allow some exploration of Robinson’s character and personal life off the field, giving a look at the icon when he was most vulnerable, afraid, or unsure, as well as carrying their roles in their own right. Of coruse, the true all-star of the film is Chadwick Boseman, who much like the baseball player he’s playing, defies all expectations and rises to the occasion of the role offered to him. He gives Robinson all the dignity, wit, courage and skill afforded to the icon, while balancing this out with some intensely personal moments, all skillfully portrayed with the ability of an actor that, in a movie filled with memorable turns from actors in memorable roles, really and truly steals the show. You may not know his name going into the theater, but you will know it by the time you are walking about – certainly if new roles start pouring in like I think they should given his performance here.
Finally, we have the cinematography and direction, which are in and of themselves worthy of note. The movie recreates the look and feel of the 1940s with a skillful level of detail that would please even the most scrutinized set designer. Much the same, I am surprised just how well director Brian Helgeland handles the tone of the film – given his resume consists mainly of forgettable decade-old Heath Ledger vehicles, I’m shocked when I say he’s crafted a biopic that could go nine-innings with half the ones put up for Oscars in the last few decades – in terms of style, it’s very reminiscent of the sort of old-fashioned biopic that fell out of fashion around the late-nineties, and the return to form is both refreshing and long-overdue. About the only complained I can think of is the score, which ranges from overbearing to corny, but never in a way that hurts the film, and in a way, it works with the nostalgic and inspirational tone of the movie.
There are so many ways this movie could have gone wrong – it could have been a lackluster and milquetoast bore like Geroge Lucas’ Tuskegee Airman picture Red Tails, or been another of the strong of bland baseballs pictures ranging from Moneyball to Trouble with the Curve, or had gotten too mired in the darkness or heroics. So it’s no small thing when I say that not only does 42 not miss the mark, not only did it score a base hit, but it struck a genuine home run with the source material and as a film in its own right. This may well be the best baseball movie in decades, maybe since Eight Men Out, maybe since Pride of the Yankees – and in terms of a Jackie Robinson movie, this is the best sort of biopic that you could have hoped for, one that captures the legend, explores the man, doesn’t shy away from the dark side, nor ignore the heroic ones, manages to be both enlightening and entertaining, and provides such an inspirational tale that will leave you cheering in the bleachers, er, theater.
Like Robinson himself, 42 proved to be a great surprise, one worthy of adulation and praise, and given the performances of the mostly rookie cast, may prove to be a game-changer in Hollywood. This is the first great film of 2013, and it cannot be missed.