Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
April 30, 2013
BASEBALL/POP CULTURE: 42
Over the weekend, I went to see 42, the Jackie Robinson movie. A few thoughts, with spoilers for those of you who do not already know the story by heart (I can't say my take here is that radically different from a number of other reviews I've read from other baseball writers):
1. The movie is a snapshot - not the full story of either Robinson's life and career or the integration of baseball. It starts with Branch Rickey's decision to bring a black player to the Dodgers in 1945, and ends with the Dodgers winning the 1947 NL pennant. Even within that snapshot, once Jackie makes the Dodgers' minor league team in Montreal, almost nothing is shown of his 1946 season, and some other events are compressed (the Cardinals get off easy, as the film focuses on the Phillies as the main villians who threatened not to take the field against an integrated team). That keeps the plot and pacing relatively tight (even though the endpoint is no surprise), but it necessarily leaves off a lot of background and detail as well as the other storied chapters of Robinson's career. And relatedly, the film is intended mainly to tell Robinson's story to a generation of moviegoers who don't know all the details, so there's a bit of broad exposition that would not be necessary for people like me who are already steeped in the whole story.
2. The performances are everything they needed to be. Harrison Ford - while still recognizably Harrison Ford - steals every scene he's in as Branch Rickey, and captures "Mr. Rickey's" character and style (complete with his trademarks - his sermonizing speaking style and outrageously bushy eyebrows). Similarly, Christopher Meloni and John C. McGinley look, act and sound like the real Leo Durocher and Red Barber, other than Meloni being a lot bigger and bulkier than the diminutive Lip.
Chadwick Boseman has the unenviable task for a young actor of having to carry the film while competing with Ford and other more experienced actors, but while he doesn't mimic Robinson's high-pitched voice, he captures the man's fierce competitive drive and hatred of segregation, and perhaps even more importantly he's truly believable at bat and on the basepaths, where Jackie worked his memorable magic. More broadly, the baseball in the movie is really well-done: the players, the game and the parks all look like 1940s baseball. Brad Beyer as Kirby Higbe, for example, looks very much the part of your typical Sourthern farm boy turned power pitcher of that era.
In some ways, Jackie Robinson's challenge in holding his temper in check and channeling it into the game reminds me of what I've written about George Washington; neither was the kind of man to meet adversity with Zen-like calm, but both managed to become complete masters of their own powerful emotional currents - anger, rage, despair - and present to the world a stoic face. That's an incredibly impressive skill, for such a strong personality to remain so contained. The film captures that challenge, and takes some dramatic license to illustrate it with a scene (which almost certainly did not happen) of Robinson breaking down in the tunnel behind the dugout and requiring a pep talk from Rickey.
(Nicole Beharie is elegant as the still-elegant Rachel Robinson, but doesn't really have much of a role to work with beyond the standard baseball-wife scenes. The film does spend some time with the Robinsons as newlyweds, which reminds me of an interesting question that I think I asked on Twitter a while back to not much satisfactory response: what is cinema's most compelling black romantic couple? We can all name lots of famous onscreen romances, but it's only much more recent films that have really developed those relationships between a black man and a black woman, and I can't think of one that stands out as iconic. But there has to be one I'm not thinking of.)
3. The dialogue is frequently terrible, windy and too self-aware, and there's a handful of scenes that are anachronistic in the way the characters speak and interact (men in the late 40s didn't talk with each other about their feelings a lot, for example). While the usual rule in biographical films is to avoid mimicry, the best dialogue is actually characters like Rickey, Barber, Durocher and Happy Chandler speaking the way those men actually spoke (I sat through all approximately 478 hours of Chandler's Hall of Fame induction speech in 1982). Branch Rickey really did talk as if he was orating for the history books; most of his players did not.
4. The movie's inaccuracies were irritating but few and minor. Leo Durocher's suspension for the 1947 season is portrayed as solely the result of his scandalous affair with Laraine Day, when in fact the stated reason for the suspension was over Durocher consorting with gamblers (Happy Chandler also cited "the accumulated unpleasant incidents in which he has been involved," which also covered the affair and a variety of Leo's other feuds). (I'll forgive the filmmakers for sneaking into a night-time phone conversation Leo's iconic "Nice guys finish last" line). Pee Wee Reese is given Gene Hermanski's famous clubhouse wisecrack about how the Dodgers should all wear 42 when Jackie gets a death threat, so nobody could tell which one was him. Fritz Ostermuller's family claims that the film inaccurately portrays him as a racist who beaned Robinson in a game. (The family of Ben Chapman, who eventually repented of his racist torments of Robinson late in life, could make no such claim). The film ignores Dan Bankhead, the second black Dodger who joined the team in late August. But on the whole, I was pleasantly surprised by the attention to getting details right that historians of the game would notice. The movie captured both the essential truths of Robinson's battle against the color line and the twists along the way. Particularly interesting and mostly accurate was the differing motivations of the players who rallied around Robinson, from Reese's reluctant solidarity (as a son of Kentucky) to the scrappy Eddie Stanky, who like his mentor Durocher would walk over fire for you if you were on his team and could help him win a ballgame.
Every generation learns history anew, and Jackie Robinson's corner of history is one worth retelling. If you haven't seen 42 yet, you should.