Friday, May 17, 2013


Alternate Title:  Elegy for Saint Jack

One sentence synopsis:   Jackie Robinson and Branch Ricky shatter the color barrier in major league baseball.

Things Havoc liked:  Contrary to popular belief, Jackie Robinson was not the first black man to play professional, major league baseball. He was, however, the first one to do it in the modern era, bringing a sixty year period of baseball segregation to an end, and did so at a time wherein the risks of attempting such a thing were very real. By all accounts an unassuming man, Robinson broke the color barrier the only way anyone could, by playing lots of top-quality baseball, and his career remains the only positive accomplishment I am willing to lay at the feet of the Dodgers, then of Brooklyn, now of Los Angeles, who as rivals to my beloved Giants are axiomatically comprised of nothing but scum and dog-molesters, unfit to wear uniforms or swing bats.

Erm... sorry, where were we?

So yes, as a baseball fan of record, (see my Moneyball review for more details), I was interested in seeing 42, and finding out what it offered. As it turns out, what it offered in no small part was a hell of a cast. The main event of course is Robinson himself, played here by unknown (to me at least) Chadwick Boseman, who not only does a fine job but looks a spitting image of Robinson himself. Boseman's performance isn't the greatest in the film, but then his role is to do as Robinson himself did, and not react to things, not even when he desperately wants to. Co-starring (effectively) alongside Boseman is Harrison Ford, playing pioneering Dodgers president Branch Ricky, a man who simply wanted to torpedo the unwritten color barrier of baseball any way he could, and brought Robinson in to do just that. Dearly though I love Ford, I have always had a very hard time seeing anyone but Ford himself in his performances, with the exception of those so iconic that it's impossible to imagine anyone else (Indiana Jones, Han Solo, Jack Ryan). Here, well, he came close at least, employing a jowly growl of a voice as he glowers menacingly at anyone who dares to enter his office, be it his own staff or the commissioner of baseball itself. Yet Ford's is also not the best performance in the film. Most of the other roles go to recognizable character actors, uniformly on top of their game, particularly Law & Order's Christopher Meloni playing the Dodgers' womanizing manager Leo Durocher, a man with no patience for the racial hangups of his players, willing to fire anyone who refuses to play on the field with Robinson. Meanwhile, the games themselves are narrated by Dr. Cox himself, John McGinnley, who plays the legendary Dodgers play-by-play man Red Barber. Meloni's role is relatively small, but he is perfect in every scene, a man who simply cannot be bothered to either be or tolerate racists, as the sum total of his cares in the world are to win baseball games and make money. McGinnley meanwhile tones his usual manic screen presence waaaaaaay down to faithfully replicate Barber's laconic call style, one which defined an entire generation of sports broadcasters. Both of these performances are excellent, and yet neither one of them are the best performances in the movie.

No, the best performance in the film belongs to (of all people) Alan Tudyk, who plays Ben Chapman, manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, and one of the most virulent racists ever to set foot on a baseball diamond (yes, including Ty Cobb). Chapman's hatred for Robinson and everything he represented was legendary, even by the standards. He would stand on the field shrieking vile epithets at every at-bat, and ordered his pitchers to hit Robinson in the head as often as they dared. Tudyk, whom I've only ever seen play comedic or semi-serious roles, here transforms himself into something wholly new. Not only does he play a despicable scumbag with great vigor, but he even manages to capture the self-righteous justifications that allow him to behave in such a way (his reaction to an article condemning his vile racism is to declare "a Jew wrote that.") I've seen Tudyk in a number of roles since Firefly, not always to his credit, but never before have I seen him transform himself into a role this divergent from his traditional body of work.

Things Havoc disliked: There's a fine art to hagiography. You can't expect a movie like this to provide you with the same character experience that you might see in a wholly fictional story. This movie is not here to give us a full accounting of Jackie Robinson's life, it's here to tell us about a pivotal moment in the history of baseball. And that's fine, except that this movie goes completely overboard with the saccharine element.

Look, I'm not objecting to a sentimental film. Pixar's films are sentimental. Spielberg's (better) films are sentimental. There's nothing wrong with a sentimental film, indeed there's often much that's right, as a sentimental film can pierce the cynicism with which we go through our lives and touch us on a human level. Sentiment is one of the ways that film reminds us that it is an art form as well as a commercial enterprise, and thus has value in and of itself. 42 is not sentimental however. 42 is sappy, and sappy films are a completely different beast than sentimental ones. Sappy films include such scenes as when a little black boy prays aloud to God that Jackie Robinson get a hit so as to "show everyone that we can do it too". Sappy films involve sequences where Jackie's teammates walk over to him on the field and thank him for having the courage to "bring out the best in them". Sappy films focus on a home run he hit in the middle of the pennant race as though it was the most important single event in the history of time (did we forget that the world series also exists)?

Yes, I'm sure most of these events actually happened in some form (Pee Wee Reese putting his arm around Robinson during a Cincinnati game has been memorialized in a statue), but I seriously doubt they happened like this, with actors reciting unutterable dialogue while swelling violin music plays in the background and they stare off into the distance as though savoring the moment of history. However good your intentions are for a film, you simply cannot produce scenes wherein people speak in a manner nobody in the history of the world has ever spoken and expect the audience to buy it. No, not even if your subject matter is as "uplifting" (or "correct") as that of Jackie Robinson's career. Very few things are able to drive me out of my immersion in a film faster than hacky dialogue intended to induce diabetic comas, and this movie produces that exact effect more than once.

But as though that weren't enough, there's a specific moment in the film I have to call out. One of the many antagonists that Robinson faces among major leaguers is a pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates named Fritz Ostermueller. In the film, Ostermueller is a violent racist who throws at Robinson's head and screams at him to get off the field, as black people (his term is less polite) do not belong in baseball. Nothing special relative to what else Robinson faces, yet unlike the various other racists Robinson encounters, this one is a complete distortion of the truth. The real Ostermueller never accosted Robinson, on or off the field. He was on the record multiple times as having supported the idea of Robinson and other black players joining the Major Leagues, and the infamous HBP (hit by pitch) that the movie claims was a racist assault, was actually an inside pitch that hit Robinson in the wrist, something that happened quite often, as Robinson had a tendency to crowd the plate against left-handed pitchers. It's one thing to get facts wrong in a movie. Every movie does this. But it's quite another to blacken a man's reputation by accusing him of being a vile racist when he was anything but. Ostermueller was no hall of famer, certainly. Few people have ever heard of him outside this movie. But does that make it right to arbitrarily re-assign his memory into that of a race-baiting hatemonger? Were there really not enough genuine villains that Robinson faced to fill two hours of screen time?

Final thoughts:    I wanted to like this film, I did, but I can only take so much in the way of sappy preaching on the saintliness of someone, genuine hero or otherwise, especially since the film seems to think that the heroic patina surrounding Robinson excuses a hatchet job on an undeserving player. 42 is not an unpleasant film nor is it a particularly bad one, but I walked out of it without any particular need to see it again. The sappiness quotient wasn't enough for me to condemn it the way I've condemned other sap-fests (Timothy Green, for instance), but it certainly was enough to let this one pass by. Given that Brian Helgeland, who wrote and directed this film, was previous to this employed on Salt and Ridley Scott's Robin Hood, I feel confident enough in pronouncing this movie to be a third strike.

But don't worry Helgeland. There's always next year.

Final Score:  5/10

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