By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
I love baseball. Some even claim I’m moved to tears when taking in the playing field of Yankee Stadium for the first time each season. So it is in that vein that I declare Brian Helgeland’s “42” both a stirring depiction of Jackie Robinson’s epic breaking of the color line and a fine addition to those films recounting the saga of our national pastime.
But more important among the dramatically solid movie’s virtues is the conscientious refresher course on racism in America. The term sports metaphor has never been more appropriate. And, just as with so many other histories chronicling man’s inhumanity to man, it’s shocking to realize Mr. Robinson’s trials and tribulations weren’t that long ago.
Solid, painstaking direction, dedicated acting performances and studiously detailed art direction, from the re-creation of ball parks long gone to beautiful postwar cars of the period, are all brilliantly complemented by the fashions of the day. Dig those wild and crazy ties. Unfortunately, where it really counts, attitudes are conservative to a fault.
However, with the recent defeat of fascism and McCarthyism still warming up in the bullpen, the push for profits and a glimmer of open-mindedness led to an opportunity that wasn’t lost on Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey. African Americans had served valiantly in WWII. Progressivism was on deck. The inning was right.
While Moses Fleetwood Walker, a standout at Oberlin College who donned the uniform of the Toledo Blue Stockings for one season in 1884 is generally credited with being the first African American major leaguer, a color barrier was erected shortly thereafter. Though inconsistent and hypocritical within its own prejudice, it stood until 1947.
When Branch Rickey, superbly portrayed by Harrison Ford, is first asked why he is pioneering the integration of baseball, he modestly attributes it to good business. But it’s a far more altruistic vision which leads him to pick Jackie Robinson to be a part of the perfect storm that will help pave the way for the civil rights reforms of the 50’s and 60’s.
Starring at the center of the tale, Chadwick Boseman convincingly suits up as the designated hero. Perspicaciously handpicked by Rickey for his determination, athletic ability, intellect and pluck, he will need all those qualities. Jim Crow is a formidable foe and determined not to relinquish his lead in the racial intimidation standings.
We are embarrassed for any surviving relatives of Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) when he assails Robinson with an ugly, vitriolic tirade tempered only, we fear, by the film’s PG-13 rating. Insult is piled atop injury when, added to unfair umpires and exclusionary polices at hotels, some of Jackie’s own teammates threaten boycott.
Despite our awareness of this shameful portion of history, director Helgeland’s nobly executed iteration has us duly abashed. But it is Harrison Ford, at long last playing a role far afield of his adventuresome stereotype, who winningly provides the film with its moral center. Steering the ship of reformation, his Rickey is the hero behind the hero.
Clear as the spotlessly blue sky above a perfectly manicured ball field, where there’s no place for deceit to hide, this becomes an obvious matter of right versus wrong. We have a rooting interest in the resolve that talent and truth must prevail over bigotry and corruption, and entrust this inherently honest kid’s game to be the ultimate arbiter.
Constructed of basic, logically fair rules, the bulk of which haven’t changed much since their evolution in the 1800s, and perhaps inspired by the country’s founding document itself, it’s no wonder baseball is the national pastime. Thus it follows that just as that esteemed parchment required a 13th Amendment, the color line, too, had to be abolished.
But before one gets too smug in the knowledge that said inequity was overcome, unless you checked your conscience at the box office, the movie doubtlessly will get viewers to mulling what work still needs to be done. Such is good muckraking. Note, “M*A*S*H” (1970) wasn’t really about Korea, but about our problematic involvement in Vietnam.
Still, while “42” is more than a baseball film, when you consider that baseball aficionado Hal Teitelbaum ranks Robinson alongside Jim Thorpe as America’s two best athletes, more celluloid might have been devoted to his storied prowess. The primary focus in that respect is on the 4-letter, UCLA star’s flair for rattling pitchers when on the base paths.
Now, I don’t know what kind of a marriage the Babbitts down the block wage behind closed doors, let alone what sort of bliss Jackie shared with Rachel (Nicole Beharie). It’s just that Mrs. Robinson, depicted as the perfect complement, is still alive. My skepticism aside, “42” steps up to the plate and delivers a fine homage to both the man and the game.
“42,” rated PG-13, is a Warner Bros. release directed by Brian Helgeland and stars Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford and Nicole Beharie. Running time: 128 minutes
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