5 Stars – Most Inspirational Sports Movie of 2013 – starring Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Nicole Beharie, Christopher Meloni, Ryan Merriman, Lucas Black, Alan Tudyk; written and directed by Brian Helgeland; Warner Bros. Pictures
I love baseball movies. My two favorites are Field Of Dreams and The Natural, not only because they’re classics, but also because they deal with archetypal issues. In Field of Dreams, it’s the father-son relationship that every boy and every man struggles with. In The Natural, it’s the dual influences of good and evil, represented by two women. 42 fits this class of film: it’s about the struggle against adversity, the struggle to be accepted. In this case, the adversity is racial prejudice.
Even before his baseball career, Jackie Robinson knew adversity. He was courtmartialed in the army for insubordination because he refused to “move to the back of the bus” when the driver ordered him to, even though the bus was an integrated military vehicle. He was acquitted, but that experience helped to shape him. [There is a TV movie about these events called The Court-Martial Of Jackie Robinson (1990).]
42 references Robinson’s court martial but does not spend any time on it. Instead, it shows his defiance of segregation with a scene at a filing station. His Negro League baseball team, the Kansas City Monarchs, have stopped their bus for gas at a redneck filling station, and Robinson decides to use the public toilet. “You know better than that,” the gas attendant quips when he sees him headed toward the toilet door. Robinson turns back to him and says something to the effect of, “Then we’ll just get our 200 gallons of gas somewhere else.” The attendant gives in.
From that moment, we see the kind of man Robinson is.
Meanwhile, Branch Rickey, General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers has a plan: to make the Dodgers the first integrated baseball team in the Major Leagues. Candidates are suggested, including Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson. [There was a TV movie made about this called Soul Of The Game (1996).] But Rickey chooses Robinson, partly because he is such a showman – he loves to steal bases – and partly because he’s already shown that he will stand up to segregation; but also because he’s a fellow Methodist. 🙂 As Robinson is coming out of the filling station toilet from the previous scene, a messenger from Rickey is waiting to take him to New York.
From that moment, we see the kind of man Rickey is. It’s a brilliant pair of scenes and a brilliant pairing of men.
42 is a likable movie. The characters are well-drawn by some of the best actors in the business. The casting is impeccable. Both Chadwick Boseman, who plays Robinson, and Harrison Ford, who plays Rickey, look and act like their real-life characters. Nicole Beharie, who plays Robinson’s wife, Rachel, is cute and feisty. Christopher Meloni plays a beefy Leo Durocher, manager for the Dodgers, who’s sexual exploits get him suspended from baseball for a year. Ryan Merriman plays Dixie Walker, seemingly the only member of the Dodger’s team who never accepts Robinson.
Lucas Black, who plays Pee Wee Reese, amazes me. He’s one of the most athletic actors I know. He played impeccable golf in Seven Days In Utopia (2011), football in Friday Night Lights (2004), and now believable baseball in 42. He’s also a heck of an actor. His character, Reese, is one of the first of the Dodgers to accept Robinson, even though he is conflicted by the prejudice of his relatives in Kentucky. The scene where he puts his arm around Robinson on the field for his family in the stands to see is memorable.
It is also a great example of how carefully the filmmakers have thought through the plot. One of Reese’s relatives is in the stands with his little boy. When Robinson takes the field, the stands erupt with shouts of “Go home nigger! We don’t want you here!” and similar remarks. These are the Dodger’s fans. Listening to this, and seeing his dad doing the same thing, the little boy soon joins in. Then, when he sees Pee Wee Reese put his arm around Jackie Robinson as if they’re best friends, the little boy realizes he was wrong. So do most of the other fans, including the boy’s dad, and the degrading remarks subside. This scene really shows you the heart of the film and of the filmmakers: how easily the seeds of prejudice are planted in the heart of a child, and how easily that can be changed if someone has the guts, as Reese did, to do the right thing.
Another memorable scene is when Alan Tudyk, playing Ben Chapman, manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, stands out in front of his team’s dugout and verbally harasses Robinson while he’s trying to bat. He pretty much throws everything at him, including “Nigger, nigger, nigger,” and saying that he slept with some of the other players’ wives. Branch Rickey has already told Robinson that if he lets this type of harassment get to him and he is provoked to violence, no one will say that it was Chapman’s fault – they’ll blame Robinson. So he has to swallow his pride and, consequently, is flustered into hitting pop-ups. The harassing continues. Finally, one of Robinson’s team mates, Harold Parrott, played by T. R. Knight, walks over to the Phillies’ dugout and confronts Chapman in no uncertain terms. After that, Chapman shuts up and Robinson hits a home run, winning the game for the Dodgers, and pretty much everyone’s respect.
An interesting note: The first movie about Jackie Robinson, called The Jackie Robinson Story (1950), stars Jackie Robinson playing himself. It’s a good, solid bio-pic. What’s interesting is that Clay Hopper, manager of the Montreal Royals – the International League team on which Robinson played in preparation for coming to the Dodgers – was one of the main characters in that earlier film. In 42, he’s a minor character, played by Brett Cullen. So 42 is not a remake of The Jackie Robinson Story, which is why it didn’t carry that name. It is a fresh look at the ballplayer and his extraordinary circumstances, with a whole other story to tell. And, I think, a better one.
42 is written and directed by Brian Helgeland, who, up until now, has been more of a writer than a director. He wrote Robin Hood, Man On Fire, Mystic River, A Knight’s Tale, Conspiracy Theory, L.A. Confidential and a host of others. They’re a very interesting mix, most being gritty, action films. This film is different. He has six movies that he has directed, but 42 is the best by far. I hope he continues in this genre, because it works.
Very few movies elicit clapping at the end, but this one does. When I saw it, the audience responded accordingly. 42 is inspirational as well as entertaining, and accomplishes what most other inspirational sports movies wish they could: it makes me want to be a better man.
Waitsel Smith, April 30, 2013
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Text © 2013 Waitsel Smith. Photos © 2013 Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.