Went to a movie the other day. It had no shaky-cam, no desaturated colors, no rapid-fire three-second edits. The story was linear, the characters felt real and honest. No distractions.
There was some foul language but not a lot, save the repeated (but not to excess) use of a particular racial epithet that was integral to the story. No sex, no nudity (even in the locker-room shower scene). There was a bit of violence but nothing extreme or gory. The film even invokes the Bible and Jesus, and not in a negative way.
The story is true, though a few minor cinematic liberties are taken, as always happens. Several critics have complained that the film is not “warts and all,” that it isn’t as “gritty” as it could be, that it “softens” the story and the main character, which could have been fleshed out with some of his real-life flaws.
But at a time when our cinematic heroes are all fanciful, wearing skin-tight costumes and flapping capes, and demonstrating superhuman powers, it’s quite refreshing to see a movie about a real, grounded person overcoming great but human odds to make the world a better place.
And in several reviews the phrase “old-fashioned” surfaced as if that’s a bad thing.
The movie is, of course, “42,” the story of Jackie Robinson cracking baseball’s color barrier in 1947.
But “42” is not Robinson’s life story. His personal life naturally comes into play but the focus is on Robinson’s relationship with the sport he loved, and also with the man who hired him to be the first black player in Major League Baseball, Branch Rickey.
The innovative Brooklyn Dodgers’ president and general manager had been looking at players in the Negro leagues for a few years, confident he would recognize the one with the right amount of talent and the strength of character to lead desegregation in baseball. Rickey found that man in Jackie Robinson, and together they made history.
The film depicts Rickey as an idealistic man, though he downplays that aspect himself, saying that the move also makes business sense. But it’s obvious that the action he takes is motivated by something more than dollar signs.
After settling on Robinson as the man for the job, Rickey tells a colleague, “He’s a Methodist. I’m a Methodist. God’s a Methodist.” Later he advises Robinson to follow the example of Jesus in “turning the other cheek,” meaning he will have to withstand the inevitable taunts and threats without reacting in any way other than by taking the high road, and by winning baseball games.
“42” has also been criticized for its casting, some reviews suggesting that as Robinson, Chadwick Boseman is a bit soft, and that as Rickey, Harrison Ford is too broad. But neither performance struck me as being in the least bit off.
Boseman seems perfect as the tightly coiled, suspicious Robinson, unsure at first of what to believe as his place in history begins to unfold and Rickey’s predictions of opposition play out as expected. He also projects the inner strength and fortitude, as well as the baseball-playing chops, necessary to fill out the character and allow the audience to embrace him as a person rather than an icon on a pedestal.
As for Ford, well, he’s been a tall, strapping, heroic leading man for so long (he’s Han Solo and Indiana Jones for cryin’ out loud) that it may simply be difficult for some to separate his screen persona from this hunched over, cigar-chomping, late-in-life character — and by all accounts, he was a character. But I had no such difficulty.
Ford plays Rickey as gruff but sentimental, sly but humorous, a performance that reminded me of some of the great old character actors of the movies’ golden age. But he also manages to infuse Rickey with humanity and depth so that he’s more than merely a comic caricature.
But here’s what really sold me, before I even saw the film. As I watched the trailer for “42” a couple of times a month or so ago, I didn’t recognize that it was Ford playing the role. When I read that it was him and saw the trailer again, I could see Ford behind the character, but initially he had me fooled.
Ford may never be mistaken for the kind of immersive role-playing actor that Dustin Hoffman is, but he manages to make Rickey his own in a way that I found completely believable.
There are lots of other strong actors here whose characters impress as well —John C. McGinley as silver-tongued sportscaster Red Barber, Christopher Meloni as contentious Dodgers manager Leo Durocher, Andre Holland as journalist Wendell Smith, Nicole Beharie as Robinson’s wife Rachel, Lucas Black as Pee Wee Reese, Max Gail as Durocher’s reluctant replacement Burt Shotton, and, as the chief villain here, Alan Tudyk playing Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman.
The script and direction is by Brian Helgeland, who is known primarily as a writer, his screenplays including “Mystic River” and the Oscar-winning “L.A. Confidential” (co-written with director Curtis Hanson). Helgeland’s previous directing efforts, however, would hardly seem to elevate him as first choice for this material — but he pulls if off wonderfully.
And if, after seeing this one, you want more, there’s “The Jackie Robinson Story,” a 1950 film with Robinson playing himself; “The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson,” a 1990 TV movie about Robinson’s military court martial after he was insubordinate regarding segregation (he was acquitted), with Andre Braugher; and “Soul of the Game,” a TV movie from 1996 about Robinson’s relationship with older black players Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson (Blair Underwood, Delroy Lindo and Mykelti Williamson, respectively). All are quite good, as are several fine documentaries about Robinson.
“42” was last weekend’s No. 1 box-office hit but that doesn’t mean it came close to the kind of success that “Iron Man 3” will have in its first weekend. Or “Hangover, Part 3.” Or any number of sequels and “popcorn movies” that will start to shuttle into theaters in the coming weeks for the summer season.
So go see it and enjoy it while you can, and tell your friends to see it, too. Then, maybe, we’ll get more.
If there’s one thing Hollywood is good at, it’s cloning the latest big hit.
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