Friday, April 12, 2013

42

Review by Joseph Anthony

It's that time of year again. The weather is changing and summer is nigh upon us, signaling that baseball, a pastime near and dear to America’s heart, is back in season. As a new season kicks off imagine - instead of anxieties over the playoff setup or player enhancing drugs - anxieties over racism and rampant discrimination. 1940’s America was a different place and 42 attempts to show us this reality and its intersection with the world of professional sports.

Directed by Brian Helgeland (A KNIGHT’S TALE), 42 is the story of Jackie Robinson (played nicely by Chadwick Boseman), the first African-American to play Major League Baseball. The film covers approximately 3 years of Jackie’s struggle, from his last year in the Negro League to his minor league year for the Dodgers. It’s all leading up to his groundbreaking season with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. But this isn’t just Robinson’s story alone. Part of the story is told through the perspective of Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), one of the first prominent African-American journalists to cover the game. We also see things through the eyes of Rachel Robinson (Nicole Beharie), Jackie’s new bride and mother to his child. A turbulent Brooklyn Dodgers organization adds further context to the story.


While Robinson’s talent is undeniable, the man pulling the strings is Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford). Rickey is the owner of the Dodgers and is determined to right a wrong – segregation – in the game that he loves. He understands the possible backlash against himself and the organization but through much of the film he laughs it off and ultimately embraces it. Much of the film takes place in Rickey’s office which is appropriately decorated with Abraham Lincoln memorabilia. Rickey is the man behind the scenes, but along with Jackie, we’re cheering for him. Mr. Rickey, as he is affectionately called by those around him, is played brilliantly by Ford, giving his most convincing performance in a decade.

Of course, the focus is Jackie. He’s played as a tough on the outside, tough on the inside guy. He’s constantly on the defensive, and why wouldn’t he be? His road to history is paved with slurs, death threats, Jim Crow Laws and racism everywhere he goes. Part of his own team even starts a petition to have him removed (they call it the Dodgers Declaration of Independence).

42’s largest hang up is pacing. The film often stops for Jackie to reflect on his place in history and whether he can “turn the other cheek” in the face of discrimination. In fact he does this with just about every character in the film with the result that it too often brings the momentum of the film to a halt. It does depict the harsh reality of the situation, but the audience is anxious to cheer for Jackie more often than the pace allows.

Outside of pacing, 42 suffers from occasional dialogue issues and over-explanation. This is a film that breaks down the scenarios assuming the audience may have little to no understanding of recent American history. This will work for a younger audience who has no prior knowledge of segregation in this country, but tends to stunt the movie a bit for those who know their history. However, the film does an incredible job of recreating the stadiums of the 1940’s. It also injects humor from time to time with the biggest laughs coming from Dodgers radio man Red Barber (John C. McGinley). One finds themselves wishing those radio turn of phrases still were in use. 

Much as baseball itself, films covering the sport are often beloved. Many have become favorites of mine including, THE SANDLOT, A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN, FIELD OF DREAMS, 8 MEN OUT and of course MAJOR LEAGUE.What this tells us is that the magic of the sport translates to film. There’s something more than just the sport; there is a spirit to the game and season. 

Going into 42, I was hoping for a bit more of this, even though I knew there were lessons to be learned. But even though it may not make the list of baseball classics and sometimes struggles to find what works within itself, it still serves an interesting look into the ugly side of America’s favorite pastime. As we cheer in 2013 for our home team, teams that are as diversified as any league in the world,42 lets us reflect on the man who turned his cheek the other way, broke the barriers, and is still giving us something to cheer for. (3 out of 4 stars)

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