Our national past
History of pro baseball and American race relations come to vivid life in Robinson biopic
The new Jackie Robinson biopic, 42, is a lively and moving account of how Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers broke the color barrier in major league baseball in 1947.
As a baseball movie, it’s above average, convincing in specific detail and refreshingly free of fakery. As a social drama in a period setting, it’s evocative and intense even though condensed in ways that leave little room for thematic complexities and depth of character.
Chadwick Boseman is excellent in the Robinson role. He delivers a nice sense of the man’s dignity and intensity, and the physical resemblance extends even into the way he swings the bat in the game-action scenes.
Harrison Ford has the other large role in the film—Branch Rickey, the Dodgers’ owner/ general manager who masterminded the whole breakthrough and handpicked Robinson to lead the way. Ford’s incarnation of the scholarly, strait-laced Rickey is so complete that it takes a while to recognize that it’s the same guy who played Indiana Jones.
For the most part, the script (by writer-director Brian Helgeland) sticks pretty close to the historical record. It’s no surprise that the Robinson-Rickey relationship is charted in pungent detail, of course, but Helgeland also gives special and incisive attention to a number of other powerfully dramatic events that were part of Robinson’s historic rookie year—the incipient revolts of Southern-born players on National League teams, including the Dodgers; the viciously racist provocations of Phillies Manager Ben Chapman; Southern-born teammate Pee Wee Reese giving Robinson a fraternal welcome in front of a hostile crowd at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field.
Helgeland gives considerable attention to Robinson’s fraught relationships with his own Brooklyn teammates. Aging star pitcher Kirby Higbe and one-time batting champion Dixie Walker, both from the Deep South, are openly hostile (Rickey’s response was to trade both of them to the last-place Pirates). Alabama-born catcher Bobby Bragan, a future major-league manager, signs on with the rebels at first, then changes his mind, at least partly in response to Robinson’s on-field performance in the face of Chapman’s relentless slurs.
Among Dodger teammates, Reese is the most eloquent and influential of Robinson’s supporters, but Helgeland also singles out pitcher Ralph Branca, an Italian-American New Yorker whose seemingly natural egalitarianism leads him to bond with Robinson early on, and Alabama-born infielder Eddie Stanky, also a future major-league manager, who sides with Robinson more as a matter of fiercely competitive honor than out of any moral or socio-political principle.
Distinctive off-field support comes from Robinson’s wife, Rachel, an extraordinary person in her own right and nicely played here by Nicole Beharie, and also from crusading African-American sportswriter Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), who figures here as Rickey-appointed “Boswell,” facilitator, and companion for Robinson’s transition into major-league baseball.
Lucas Black (as Reese) and Hamish Linklater (as Branca) are the other standouts among the supporting roles. Christopher Meloni misses the raucous humor in volatile Dodger Manager (and Robinson supporter) Leo Durocher. And Helgeland, for some odd reason, creates a flagrantly misleading account of the reasons for Durocher’s subsequent season-long suspension.
John C. McGinley recites the cornpone hyperbole of broadcaster Red Barber with little of the original’s flair. The digital recreations of legendary ballparks—especially Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field, but also the Polo Grounds, Crosley Field, etc.—should warm the heart of any deep-dyed baseball fan.