Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Baseball is Back

In post-WWII America, much of the nation was enjoying a prime era. The "Greatest Generation" had returned home, triumphant over the evils of fascism and the Holocaust. But while we were celebrating our victory, evils were being perpetrated on our own soil, against our own citizens. Racism was still rampant in America, seeding itself everywhere but focused mainly in the deep south where Jim Crow was king and everything from schools to bathrooms were segregated in a laughable execution of "Separate but Equal." While all those policies were wrong, where it was most notoriously visible was Major League Baseball, at the time the country's most popular sport. Before expansion, before wild card slots, before interleague play and the World Baseball Classic, baseball culture was relatively simple and unparalleled. Still, the players, managers and umpires were all white (or at least light-skinned Latinos), with no consideration ever given to signing a black ballplayer to a Major League contract.

That changed in 1947, when Jackie Robinson became the first African American to break baseball's sacred color barrier and forever change the sport. That's where Brian Helgeland's 42 steps up to the plate. Robinson's story hasn't been given the big screen treatment since 1950's The Jackie Robinson Story, which starred Robinson himself. Looking back on perhaps the most important change in the modern sports era, the film looks at the Hall of Famer's ascent from great Negro League player through his first tumultuous season as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers, winning Rookie of the year in 1947. That year, Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) had to face prejudice on all side, not only from society and rival teams but often from his own teammates as well. But with a rugged determination, no shortage of talent and the backing of the Dodgers' General Manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), Robinson earns the respect of his peers to become the renowned player he is known as today.

Perhaps most surprising about this production is how it took so long to reach fruition. As I mentioned, there hasn't been a film about Robinson since 1950, a 63-year gap that seems strange when you consider Robinson's role in the Civil Rights era. Still, the final product was well worth the wait, even when you consider the fact that it comes from Helgeland, who proves himself a fine director despite his inexperience (he's a screenwriter whose only previous credits as a film director are A Knight's Tale, Payback, and The Order). He not only rebuilds classic rural America, with its dirt roads and classically-designed ballparks, but he captures the attitude of the era, the natural discrimination that can only be infused through generations of hate and ignorance. Helgeland also successfully navigates Robinson through this gamut of violent and nonviolent bigotry, painting a fairly clear picture of what the superstar had to endure in his historic first season.

Helgeland also does an excellent job with his cast, one of the strongest I've seen this year. Frequent television guest-star Chadwick Boseman gets his biggest role to date, and as Robinson his gravelly voice and barely-civil demeanor is the perfect balance for a character sick of the degradation he must endure to play the game he loves. Hopefully this will be the first step for Boseman, one of many African American actors officially making their presence known in recent years. But as much as I loved the young actor, the number one performance of 42 has to be Harrison Ford as the rule-breaking General Manager Rickey. For the first time in a LONG time, my first reaction to a Ford performance wasn't "Indy!" or "Solo!" In fact, I often had to remind myself that Ford was in fact the actor on screen most of the time, such was his astounding ability to disappear into the role. His performance, as well as Rickey's penchant for speaking in metaphors and hiding his true objectives, makes for one of the year's great characters.

And this movie is full of real-life characters, from Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), who would become the first African American member of the Baseball Writers Association of America; Leo Durocher (Christopher Meloni), the Dodgers manager who declared "I do not care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a %^@&in' zebra. I'm the manager of this team, and I say he plays. What's more, I say he can make us all rich. And if any of you cannot use the money, I will see that you are all traded" when speaking to his players of Robinson; Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black), who famously supported Robinson even to his potentially hostile hometown fans; Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk), the player/manager of the Philadelpia Phillies whose vocal efforts to ridicule Robinson on the field had the opposite effect of uniting much of Brooklyn around their star; and Rachel Isum Robinson (Nicole Beharie), the woman who was the tenderness behind Jackie's gruff exterior. Those great performances and more underscore the film's narrative, enhancing the story with its truly understandable characters.

Is it a perfect movie? No. Emotionally, Helgeland is still a little raw, confusing melodrama with compassion, cliche with character. There are moments throughout 42 which are so staged that they reek of ridiculousness, from the inspiration Robinson brings to a small boy to the blatant (though perhaps true) scenes of discrimination, the director occasionally stuffs his movie with unnecessary bits to try and enhance the drama. More often than not, though, he succeeds when the script calls for minimalism (a scene with Ford recollecting a white boy imitating Robinson's batting stance is exceptionally well-done). The story also has some glaring historical inaccuracies (especially involving the yearlong suspension of Durocher), though those are ultimately the exception and not the rule. The few stretches into humor feel forced, though they occasionally work despite their apparent deviation from the dramatic tale.

While it might not sit on the same pedestal as such baseball movies as Bull Durham, Field of Dreams or Moneyball, 42 surely isn't far behind. It belongs in the same discussions of The Rookie, A League of Their Own, 8 Men Out and Major League, and provides a better moviegoing experience than many of those classics. 42 harkens back to the days when baseball was America's #1 pastime, and gives a good argument for revisiting that ideal again. But even if you're no baseball fan, the movie's human drama and the legacy of Jackie Robinson are well worth your time and attention, especially since you don't want to wait another 63 years to receive this opportunity again.

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