Out of the park
Writer-director Brian Helgeland’s 42 may not be a great movie, but as Pauline Kael said about 1989’s Glory, it’s a good movie on a great subject.
No, scratch that. It’s an excellent movie on a great subject, soul-stirring and inspiring. Its subject, of course, is how Jackie Robinson and Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947.
(Just as a side note, a little history: Robinson certainly broke the color barrier, but he wasn’t the first African-American to play Major League ball. That distinction goes to brothers Weldy and Moses Walker, who played with the Toledo Blue Stockings in 1884. The solidifying of Jim Crow and the mounting opposition from players like Cap Anson ensured that it would be 63 years before another black man followed them.)
In 42, Jackie Robinson is played by Chadwick Boseman, whose face is almost as unfamiliar to moviegoers as Robinson’s was to baseball fans before 1947. Boseman’s is a potentially star-making performance, despite having no “big” scenes or long speeches. Boseman isn’t a close physical match for Robinson, but the qualities he projects—quiet dignity, rock-solid character and determined self-control—make him come across on screen as precisely the kind of man Robinson, by all accounts, was in real life.
Harrison Ford, on the other hand, is a good physical match for Branch Rickey. He’s already a star, of course, but here he’s working in a crusty-old-codger mode befitting his age (Ford is 70) and segueing smoothly from strong-jawed action hero to elder-statesman character actor. Helgeland’s script makes it clear that in Robinson, Branch Rickey had found the right man for his “noble experiment,” but it also gives credit where it’s due: It shows that Rickey was the right man at the right time, too. Early on, Rickey couches his decision to integrate baseball as a dollars-and-cents business decision: “Money isn’t white, it isn’t black. It’s all green.” But in a later scene, where Rickey talks with Robinson as the latter recuperates from being spiked by a hostile base runner, Helgeland and Ford show us that Rickey was also moved by a sense of justice and shame at not doing more years before. In real life, Rickey once said, “I may not be able to do something about racism in every field, but I can sure do something about it in baseball.” Harrison Ford shows us that man; his Rickey thanks Robinson for “making me love baseball again.”
42 doesn’t soft-pedal the hostility, abuse and threats Robinson faced—you’ll hear the N-word here more than anywhere this side of a Quentin Tarantino movie. Neither does it exaggerate it; it’s nearly all a matter of public record. Hegeland does distort the record on one minor point. In the movie, Dodgers manager Leo Durocher (a spot-on cameo by Christopher Meloni) is suspended for the 1947 season for having an affair with a married woman, and we’re led to believe that the affair is just a pretext to cripple the team and punish the Dodgers for signing Robinson. In fact, Durocher was suspended for consorting with known gamblers like George Raft and Bugsy Siegel, and it probably had nothing to do with Robinson. Otherwise, the movie accurately (and stirringly) shows Durocher’s unstinting support in the face of Robinson’s disgruntled teammates: “I don’t care if the guy’s yellow or black or has stripes like a fuckin’ zebra. I’m the manager of this team, and I say he plays. Any man doesn’t like it, I’ll see that you’re traded.”
Helgeland’s movie is filled with emotionally satisfying moments like that, and they balance the sense of shame and chagrin of the overt and unapologetic racism of 1940s baseball. Like the scene of shortstop Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black, another good physical match) ignoring a torrent of racial abuse from the stands to pointedly shake hands with his “colored” teammate and put an arm around his shoulders. Another real event, faithfully and movingly recreated by 42.
42 is well-written, acted and photographed (by Don Burgess). That makes it entertaining. What makes it soul-stirring is the simple truth it tells about heroes, that they can show up anywhere, even on a baseball field or team front office. And that despite what Leo Durocher said, sometimes nice guys finish first.