MOVIE REVIEW: 42
42-- 4 STARS
In certain genres of movies, there are forgivable offenses, so to speak, of treatment compared to result. A superhero movie is allowed to ditch the rainbow spandex of the comic book page and give the movie versions of the heroes plausible costumes that don't look ridiculous in public. Horror movies are allowed for dramatic suspense to have blade-wielding killers that walk be inexplicably able to keep up with their future victims that run for their lives. On a simpler level, kids movies are allowed to have fart jokes and bad sidekicks voiced by boisterous comedians that were nowhere near actual characters created in the original fairy tales. Each of those, for their respective genres, are acceptable liberties that are par for the course of suspending logic to allow for forgivable entertainment. After all, like we always say: "it's just a movie." For the genre of sports films, especially those touting "based on a true story" before the credits start, such as Brian Helgeland's new release, 42, about Hall of Fame baseball trailblazer Jackie Robinson, there are three forgivable offenses you, as the viewer, have to get over:
- Forgive shrinking the volume to condense a long story
- Forgive the required, almost forced, optimism and inspiration to gloss over the ugly parts
- Forgive the pick-and-choose route of revising history for dramatic purposes
Let's talk about those throughout this review. First, filmmakers are allowed to truncate the volume of a subject in a sports movie. One man's life and impact cannot fit into a single movie. Writers and directors are allowed to condense for the "greatest hits" account or origin story. 42 only tells the story of about a single year in Robinson's life.
Virtual unknown Chadwick Boseman plays Robinson, who we meet in his mid-20's as a Negro League standout for the Kansas City Monarchs. Motivated by winning (better talent equals victories) and money (the untapped black fanbase who will pay to come to the ballpark), Brooklyn Dodgers head executive Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) has made the conscientious decision to bring a black man into the game of baseball and seeks out Jackie Robinson, against the advice of his advisers. He invites him to New York to see what kind of man he is and if he can take what is likely going to be a hailstorm of pressure and badgering as a person of color in a white man's game. They measure each other up and, with Branch's protection and endorsement, Robinson is signed for the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers minor league affiliate for the 1946 season and joins both clubs for spring training in Florida.
Branch sends Wendell Smith (fellow newcomer Andre Holland from TV's 1600 Penn), an African-American sportswriter for the Pittsburgh Courier, to guide Jackie, document his story, and steer him away from trouble. Robinson marries his long-time girlfriend Rachel (Nicole Beharie from Shame) and she too joins him in Florida. Sure enough, many of the more racist Dodger players and coaches fear the coming storm that Robinson represents. Some stand silent, seeing the winning talent, while others refuse to play with him. The crowds and opponents are even worse. Once Robinson pays his dues in Montreal, he is called up to the Brooklyn Dodgers for the 1947 season and makes his MLB debut on April 15th going hit-less at the plate, but walking, stealing bases, and scoring a run.
With the new era upon them, the Dodgers and their fans slowly embrace their new teammate, the importance of the man, and the shifting importance that he symbolizes. Robinson's accomplishments are too numerous to be given justice in just two hours. Like the whole "book is better than the movie" argument, real life is the same way. There are far more details in the real life and biography than in the movie. Get over it. Mark down one forgivable offense.
The second forgivable offense covers how people want sports movies that move and inspire them. Movie audiences are just like sports audiences. They want escapes with crescendos, not downers that are too brow-beating, theological, and/or negative. Even if a bad story needs to be told, someone still has to come out looking squeaky clean and some of not-so-savory details are going to get glossed over or omitted. Call it the "Shoeless" Joe Jackson treatment from Eight Men Out (and, to a more mythical degree, Field of Dreams). No one is a perfect person. Even heroes have their flaws, but you can't show too many. In fact, we tend deride movies (Take Green Lantern or even a whiny Luke Skywalker, among many others) that overplay the "reluctant hero" card.
If you watch 42 and find the racism and bigotry ugly, multiply it and imagine the real thing without family-friendly film ratings. If your blood boils, the film and its interpretation worked. If you wonder when our hero will crack, but root for him to not crack, then the film again did its job. The movie has several great scenes that play with that tension and Boseman and Ford do a fantastic job reacting to them. There's one really great moment with a random boy in the crowd who begins echoing his loud father, but changes his racist tune upon seeing Jackie's struggles. Sympathy was the clear goal, but the change was subtly effective.
In order to craft the 42 story into an entertaining movie people will see, much had to be softened. This isn't supposed to be The Passion of the Christ on the ball diamond This is a baseball movie and a sports movie about an American legend. There's enough racism to feel its palpable effect on our hero, but not enough to send you running to the hills in shock and awe. That's the way people want their sports movies. Chalk up a second forgivable offense.
The third forgivable offense is a by-product of the first one. Condensing to a single story shaves out much of the bigger picture. For a movie, history is going to get revised into something tighter, quicker, and more fluid for dramatic and cinematic purposes. You're not going to see every single game of that 1947 season and every single racial epithet that was thrown at Jackie Robinson. You're going to get the "greatest hits" edited into a coherent picture. Boseman's performance, as a newcomer shouldering the image of a legend, is very good. The fact that he's not a star really helps you envision him as the real deal. Had Jackie been played by Don Cheadle or any other name actor, the effect would be far less successful. Ford is very good as well, but doesn't make any waves either as Branch Rickey, in a coarse, cigar-chopping mentor role that Paul Newman would have played if he was still alive. Calling for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination is a bit premature, but it's nice to see him not chasing people in an action movie for a change. Nice little sidebar highlights come from Christopher Meloni as the fiery manager Leo Durocher, Lucas Black as fellow future Hall of Famer Pee Wee Reese, and John C. McGinley as radio broadcaster Red Barber.
For those that do their homework, you will learn that the events depicted in 42 are just the tip of the iceberg for Robinson historically breaking boundaries in Major League Baseball. There's a tidy, prerequisite, post-finale epilogue of facts to let you see where your movie characters ended up, but even that isn't the whole story. You're not going to see the parallel battle of bigotry faced by Jewish ballplayer Hank Greenberg (though he gets his name dropped) during the same time or learn that Larry Doby, the American League's first black player, followed Jackie just three months later in the same season with the Cleveland Indians and faced equal hate and far less press coverage. You're not going to know that Branch Rickey later drafted Roberto Clemente with the intention of doing the same for Hispanic players. It's like how everyone remembers Neil Armstrong, but forget about Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. Much like the first forgivable offense, there isn't room for everything. There's your third forgivable offense.
With those three large disclaimers defined, it all depends on what kind of viewer you are. Can you forgive the obvious for entertainment's sake or do those offenses stand out as flaws, forsaken risks, or missed opportunities at something bigger, deeper, or greater? Estimates (and box office receipts) say that most are the first kind of person, including this very critic.
42 completely stands as a respectful, heroic, and fascinating movie that matches the respectful, heroic, and fascinating man himself. Yes, it has its forgivable offenses of oversimplification, sunny optimism, Disney-like gloss, and convenient revision, but the film succeeds in its primary goal to inspire the viewer. The head-to-toe period detail of costumes, sets, and props to pull off old-school baseball is utterly flawless. That packaging and the fine performances help embolden the message and time capsule of this legendary story. One can only hope that a good movie like 42 can springboard people into learning more after leaving the theater. The film deserves credit for bringing this story to the screen and not completely diluting it. Sure, it could have taken a few more risks, but 42 is a film that deserves to be judged more for what it accomplished than what it didn't. Be forgiving and let yourself be inspired.
LESSON #1: BREAKING BARRIERS AND UNWRITTEN RULES-- If you didn't know, baseball was (and still is) filled with "unwritten" rules. They are commonly comprised of not-so-nice general understandings and repercussions meant to control what's theirs in the game. Some, like this master list, are on the field, while others are little more shady. Writing them down would make everyone as a whole look just as crazy and petty as the rules themselves. Jackie and Branch broke through those rules and dared to challenge them.
LESSON #2: THE MAKINGS OF HERO BY EXAMPLE-- To continue, exacting that change would not have worked if Jackie wasn't a good player or a strong enough person. Rules aren't changed by guys sitting on the end of the bench. They aren't changed by lovable characters we keep around for token fun. They are changed by winners who seize the opportunity. Just ask Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. Their competitiveness was their example to lead by. Success was the greatest medicine to grease that wheel of change. For Jackie to succeed with the trappings and obstacles he did and as stoically as he did was nothing short of heroic.
LESSON #3: HAVING THE GUTS NOT TO FIGHT BACK-- Those first two lessons lead to the penultimate quote from the movie and its trailers. You can't break rules and barriers, create change, and become a hero while doing so without guts. Branch Rickey was right. The guts not to fight back, to turn the other cheek, while occupying a harder road, was the greater need than combating every threat or slur. But letting his success and example speak louder than his mouth or fists, Jackie first earned sympathy and later the respect and admiration he was due. That route is a more endearing one than a combative one.