Film Review: 42
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Starring Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Nicole Beharie, Andre Holland, Christopher Meloni, Hamish Linklater
Directed and written by Brian Helgeland
Produced by Thomas Tull
Director of photography, Don Burgess
Production designer, Richard Hoover
Costume designer, Caroline Harris
Music, Mark Isham
“42,” the biography of professional baseball groundbreaker and hero Jackie Robinson, hits a grand slam–of course there’s going to be obvious baseball metaphors in every review of this film–and the movie is a rousing, spirited, positive, good old-fashioned hit of a film, touching all the emotional, historical, cultural and athletic bases, and giving the inspiring and heroic story of baseball great Robinson every bit of respect that it’s due. “42,” named after the number that Robinson wore, is generally an excellent film, although a cynic (not me) would note that it’s clichéd (but intentionally so) and by-the-book (again, intentionally so). But beyond basic nitpicking, the movie is produced, directed, written and acted so well, the film has such a huge heart, tells such a good story, delivers such a powerful message that’s always and still relevant (see the actions of several white supremacist and white-oriented hate groups in just recent weeks as the latest public display of racism), and is so well-acted by everyone—including Harrison Ford, who cleanly steals the film—you can’t turn away from liking this movie.
Actor, playwright and short film director Chadwick Boseman shines as Jackie Robinson on all levels—that gentle, quiet dignity, the underlying intelligence, the courage and braveness and, yes, the athletic ability, but watch out for an for an equally inspiring and overall excellent, thoroughly inspiring performance by Harrison Ford as Brooklyn Dodgers president and general manager Branch Rickey. Ford, like Jackie Robinson stealing home, not-so-quietly steals the film. “42” marks the best work by Ford in years. I hate to sound clichéd, but every time he appears in a scene in this movie, it’s a moment to celebrate. Ford ably and wisely uses the full armament of acting weapons and devices at his disposal–body, voice, eyes, make-up, mannerisms, movement, period clothes, posture, stage business with cigars or baseballs or papers or bats or whatever is present in the respective scene, and, most notably, the insightful, eloquent dialogue provided for his colorful, lovable and gruff character. All of this, everything needed for a total performance, do indeed add up to a genuine bravura acting performance by Ford in this film. Ford is not afraid to immerse himself completely in Rickey’s character—so much so, you actually forget that it’s Harrison Ford, something that is often difficult for superhero matinee idol types like Ford to achieve. But Ford has his face altered with prosthetics to look more like Rickey, his normally fit and lean body is padded, he’s wearing classic 1940s-era suits and bow ties, and eyeglasses, and even his voice is different, touched with a raspy gruffness, a touch of age and that certain 1940s-style of talk. It’s the type of performance, actually, that Ford has kept hidden for too long and too far between in his career. This is the Harrison Ford that appears every now and then, but really needs to appear more often.
It is the insightful Rickey, who, in 1947, wisely sensing a coming tidal wave of racial and population and professional sports change and progression despite horrible, lingering, backwards honky-cracker racism in the country, takes a daring chance and signs Robinson to the big league’s Brooklyn Dodgers, breaking baseball’s sadly-called “color line,” a dumb, rose-colored-glasses term for ignorant racism and racist behavior and segregation. Rickey, a wise, caring and religious man in real life as well as in “42,” knows precisely what this bold move will entail—racist taunts, racist hatred, racist threats—even death threats, division in society, division in baseball, even division on his own team, the beloved Dodgers, and all manners of societal upheaval. But he doesn’t care. Knowing deep inside the reality that the color of a man’s flesh is no reason for discrimination and hatred, Rickey sticks to his singular game plan, telling Robinson, an equally wise and insightful man in real life and in the film’s characterization, that they will have to meet the coming hatred and threats—but never will they lower themselves to that same level and give their enemies ammunition to use against them. Both will have to keep their heads high, their dignity intact, and their principles rock-solid in the face of whatever is hurled at them like a 90-mile-per-hour fastball. And the continued maintenance of that dignity and pride and fortitude in the face of blatant racism, prejudice, bigotry, ignorance and hatred shines throughout the film and presents real, positive heroes everyone can like, admire and respect—oddly, a factor stupidly lacking in many modern film characters, many of whom you could care less about.
And that heroic dignity of Rickey and Robinson from 1945 to 1947, as they break racial barriers, first when Robinson started playing for the Dodgers’ minor league team in Montreal Royals and finally when Robinson made his professional big-league debut with the Dodgers on April 15, 1947, at Ebbets Field, is the simple, yet not-so-simple underlying foundation of the film, and a foundation that various intriguing subplots revolve around so seamlessly and smoothly. The film presents the reactions of other Dodgers players, other teams, other baseball players and owners and managers, other cities, institutions, fans and the press as they all deal with Robinson’s groundbreaking actions, reserved dignity and athletic achievements. All these baffled, troubled people are seen trying to balance changing views and viewpoints, entrenched racist feelings and the indications of changing times and attitudes.
How the differing subcultures deal with the changes—and deal with Jackie Robinson–is presented in a succession of brief snapshots, scenes and scenarios, but the insights into people dealing with changing times is always fascinating, intriguing and, yes, entertaining. It is, after all, a movie and writer-director Brian Helgeland is talented, insightful and smart enough to know just when to lighten the mood, heighten the mood and enliven the mood of the film. There are the tense, uncomfortable moments of pure racist vile and hatred presented clearly and directly, as they must be to drive home the point of how ignorant the actions are, but there are also moments of romance, as Jackie and his strong-willed wife Rachel’s formidable love deepens and solidifies, and there is humor–yes, humor–and genuine drama, again mostly due to Ford’s character and performance. These elements of drama, romance and humor are also paired with genuinely exciting sports scenes on the field.
Although Boseman, Ford and Nicole Beharie, as the beautiful, smart Rachel, deliver strong performances, a collection of young actors and actual college, minor league and pro baseball players deliver strong performances, lending credence and believability to powerfully-filmed sports action sequences. The sports scenes, although not the real intellectual basis or core of the film, are there—it is a sports-centered film, on one level, after all—and they are shot in sweaty, dusty, dirty on-field shots that literally bring you right onto the field and into the game. Pitches land with huge explosions of sound into 1940s-style over-sized gloves, players slide into bases and the dirt and dust and grass fly straight up into the camera, players run to catch balls and you and the camera are right there running with them. The sports scenes are exciting and realistic, although, again, at its core, the film is really about what is happening off the field.
Jackie Robinson’s signing was not a gimmick simply to sell tickets, and it was not just a political statement. Robinson had real athletic talent, he was intelligent and thoughtful, he had been in the military, he had attended UCLA, and he was a family man who loved his beautiful, equally strong and intelligent wife Rachel, a nurse, and was forceful, strong and dedicated in his own right. He was, in essence, the perfect man to break through the racism of the times and be a genuine civil rights hero—as well as, yes, a genuine sports hero. Robinson could play the game—he hit, stole bases, won numerous awards, played for ten solid seasons with the Dodgers, led the team to a 1955 championship season, and compiled a Hall of Fame-worthy long list of baseball achievements.
But, again, it is what Robinson had to endure during those first difficult months and years that helped define him, and these indignities are presented clearly in the film. Dodgers teammates literally don’t want to play baseball with him, and some even write up a crude petition protesting Robinson’s presence. Opposing players either won’t throw hit-able pitches to him and intentionally walk him—or they throw baseballs directly at his head, deliberately, clearly, in front of thousands of people and the press. Opposing managers, most notably one horrible, awful redneck hillbilly Phillies manager, openly hurl racial insults at Robinson—again, on the field, in public, in front of the public and press. Fans do the same thing from their seats. A gas station attendant initially refuses to let Robinson use a “whites only” toilet at a gas station. A hotel owner refuses to let the Dodgers stay at his hotel—because of Robinson. A hillbilly cracker actually comes to a house where Robinson is staying on the road—because no hotel will house him—and warns of possibly violent “trouble” at the house unless Robinson leaves. And on and on. Through it all—in the film as in real life—Robinson soldiers on, refusing to lower himself, refusing to fight in a violent manner, and simply plays baseball, and plays baseball well. Eventually, in time, Jackie Robinson won over his teammates, fans, the public, baseball, all those previously awful subcultures who opposed him—and the world.
The story of Jackie Robinson is presented clearly, simply, directly and without complications or modernizations or any unnecessary “re-tellings” or over-dramatizing in “42,” and that is exactly how it should be. Because the very easy, straightforward moral and lesson of the film—that man is to be judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin, is clear, simple, direct and without complication. And a film attempting to tell this tale need only tell the story as it occurred—because the real story is dramatic and inspirational enough on its own. Writer-director Helgeland and producer Thomas Tull know this, and they let “42” unfold in its casual, direct, old-fashioned way—which works to everyone’s advantage in the end.
Particular kudos must be paid to director of photography Don Burgess, who films the film in a very traditional manner without any cheap gizmos or gimmicks; production designer Richard Hoover, whose attention to period detail is so thorough, every phone, utensil, sign, piece of background art and hat on every extra screams 1940s in every way; costume designer Caroline Harris, who had to clothe an expansive cast in 1940s clothes and numerous baseball players in 1940s-era uniforms, and music composer Mark Isham, who keeps the score appropriately un-2000s-modern and very 1940s, which is how it should. He also avoids overfilling the film with clichéd ‘40s standards, and just lets the subtle score remind you about which decade the proceedings are occurring in. The production also utilized green-screen technology effectively, along with actual old Southern minor-league baseball stadiums, including some of the oldest stadiums in the country, in re-creating 1940s ballparks. The overall affect of the production crew is a successful period film that beautifully evokes the sentiments, good and bad, and clothing, actions, characterizations and period details of the 1940s.
Among the many standouts in the expansive supporting cast are Lucas Black as Dodgers hero Pee Wee Reese, who befriended Robinson and famously walked over to Robinson at the start of one game and threw his arm around Robinson in a gesture of friendship; Hamish Linklater as the quiet, somewhat shy player Ralph Branca, who also befriended Robinson, and Andre Holland as the pioneering black sports journalist Wendell Smith, who advised, accompanied and befriended Robinson, chronicled Robinson for the press, and who had to deal with his own racial indignities—he was not allowed to sit in ballpark press boxes, so he had to sit in the stands and type his reports on a typewriter balanced on his lap.
“42,” incorporates all of this, and, focusing only on the years from 1945 to 1947, builds towards a completely tear-jerker ending as Robinson hits and hits and hits—on the field and off the field—and slowly but surely starts to win the hearts of those who opposed him—and starts to change not only the world of sports, but the world around sports as well. If you’re not reaching for the tissues and napkins at the end of “42”—as several people were at an advance screening in Friendship Heights Wednesday night, April 10, then you aren’t paying attention.