You Let Me Love Baseball Again

11 Apr

42-movie-posterThe new film 42 is going to do a great public service for a new generation of baseball fans who may be familiar with the name Jackie Robinson, but who don’t know much about him.

It’s a rousing movie that casts Robinson in the role of noble baseball player — a man who earned admiration not just because he broke the sport’s color barrier, but because he was a terrific athlete on the field and, just as important, a class act off it.

Which is not to say it’s the best baseball movie ever. It’s not even one truly worthy of the man himself. Predictably, with its reverential tone, majestic music cues, and sometimes cheesy dialogue, 42 is a rather conventional biopic. It tells the story of this all-American hero, putting a fine point on his accomplishments, and hammering home the point that those who objected to the integration of baseball were on the wrong side of history.

For a more rigid critic, the manipulative sincerity of the film might be a turnoff. But not me. 42 isn’t a walk-off home run, but I still scored it a solid run-scoring double.

The film begins with an ironic history lesson explaining that while baseball in the post–World War II era was “proof positive that democracy was real,” all 400 players in the major leagues were white. And no one wanted to change that.

42-bosemanNo one except Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. After declaring that “dollars aren’t black and white. They’re green,” Rickey in 1946 sets out to hire the first black player. Screw anyone who’s resistant to this move; Rickey’s gonna make it happen, dammit.

The “lucky” individual chosen is Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman), a talented and button-pushing player who made a name for himself in the Negro Leagues. Rickey warns Robinson of the pressures that lie ahead: “Your enemy will be out in force. You cannot meet him on his own low ground.” Can Robinson resist every urge he has to fight back when his temper is tested?

Of course he can. But it’s not easy. Even when faced with the particularly hateful insults of Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk), who taunts Robinson from the dugout every time he stands at the plate and calls him the N-word multiple times in five minutes of film time, our hero internalizes the struggle, letting his talent win out over his opponents’ racism. And over the next two hours, we watch as Robinson earns the sympathy and respect of his teammates (who initially petition ownership to have him kicked off), then the fans (known as the “Flatbush Faithful”), and the entire sport of baseball.

42-Ford-KnightWriter/director Brian Helgeland gives the film a nice retro feel — some impressive digital work and a soundtrack that includes Count Basie and Billie Holiday brings us right back to some of those old ballparks. He thankfully does away with montages of the baseball action that would have glossed over Robinson’s play, instead focusing on a few key games and showing how number 42’s hitting, base-running skills, and general presence in the game teased pitchers and left them uneasy.

But Helgeland has created a Robinson character that’s nothing less than a saint. And as charming as Boseman is, that doesn’t leave much room for depth. The scenes with wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie) come off as cinematically perfect; it’s a nice tribute to their marriage, but not exactly interesting to watch.

More fun is Ford, who actually gets to act and play something other than a variation on gruff Indiana Jones. And Ford digs in, chewing scenery and delivering his dialogue with a good-ole curmudgeonly growl that gives the impression he’s enjoying himself here more than he has in years. That sense is infectious; Ford gives the film a lot of its energy.

42-ChadwickBosemanAlright. So The Natural this is not. (Heck, it’s not even The Jackie Robinson Story, the 1950 film that starred Robinson himself.) It’s a bit too earnest and decent, and like many a baseball game, it drags a little in the late innings.

But maybe it’s because we now take integration (in baseball and otherwise) for granted that Robinson’s story seems so conventional now. As 42 shows, without Jackie Robinson, we would never get to see Dustin Pedroia playing alongside David Ortiz were it not for players like him and Pee Wee Reese. No matter how the story’s told, that’s something we should all celebrate.

So even though 42 is a little too down the middle, this big-screen tribute to the legacy of Robinson is still a film I found worth rooting for. I suspect there’ll be plenty of fans wearing his number on their back when Major League Baseball pays its annual tribute to Robinson on April 15, and for many years to come.

I’m giving 42 a B.

Will you be stepping up to the plate for 42? Share your baseball memories in the comments section below.

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