Jim Harris: ‘42’ Is Can’t-Miss Flick For More Than Just Baseball Fans

We’ve surely learned by now we can’t get our history from the movies. Every “based on a true story” movie has compartmentalized events into a two-hour frame, compacted several characters into one or two catalysts, and often the historical drama has been geared to a fit the filmmaker’s agenda. Usually when a filmmaker doesn’t accede to those usual Hollywood tropes to make such a movie of historical import, the result is a complete bore.

Yet all those beliefs now seem to fly out the window with the new film “42.”

The director’s attention to detail, and the storywriters’ determination to stick as close to the facts as possible, has made “42” as close to historically accurate as any biography could be of Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play major league baseball. Plus, it’s a great baseball movie, though it’s bigger than that.  While Brian Hegeland has presented us with a 128-minute film that seems to fly by in an hours time, he has us squirming in our seats during scenes when Robinson endures repeated epithets from opposing fans, players and managers, and also manages to make palpable to us the fear of racism and reprisal.

A local newspaper review of the film the day it opened in Little Rock totally missed the mark in every way. Our guess, before seeing it ourselves, was that perhaps the writer wasn’t much of a baseball fan, or went in expecting some expansive life story of Robinson.

This story is essentially about two men, Robinson and legendary baseball operator Branch Rickey, and it covers two years in their lives: 1946-47, when Rickey decided that major league baseball needed to be less lily-white and employ the great talent toiling in the Negro Baseball League. For most of the movie, Rickey convinces his underlings (and us) that his motives are not altruistic but merely business-oriented. He wants to win, and winning brings in fans. Others note that Rickey wants a black player to bring in many more black fans.

Veteran actor Harrison Ford is never better, and in fact is nearly unrecognizable early on as the Harrison Ford we know, in filing the persona and wide-brimmed hat Rickey.

Chadwick Boseman, little known among mainstream movies to this point but sure to be seen and heard from again often, captures Robinson’s humanity while looking the part of a special ballplayer.

The supporting cast is spot on.

Finding an actor that so resembles Robinson in 1947 was just one area of detail that Hegeland nails.

So many baseball movies give us a rickety-old ballpark and attempt to convince us this is Wrigley Field or Yankee Stadium or perhaps some long-gone stadium of the past. In the case of “42,” however, Hegeland seems to be in love with the classic stadiums of yesteryear and, whether its through the best CGI used in a baseball film to this point, presents us with a resurrected Ebbets Field in Brooklyn (surely old-timers there must feel goosebumps at the sight of this ghost), or Crosley Field in Cincinnati, the immense Polo Grounds in New York, Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis, and finally the high-walled outfield and multi-tiered stands of Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, with the towering administration building of the University of Pittsburgh in the immediate distance.

It’s as if Hegeland’s ode is not dedicated just to Robinson, or Rickey, but to baseball’s “Boys of Summer” days gone by.

Robinson’s history up to 1946 is covered not in flashbacks but rather in conversation between Robinson and his wife (played by the striking Nicole Beharie), or by Rickey and his assistant (former “Grey’s Anatomy” star T.R. Knight), who notes that Robinson had been court-martialed in the Army for refusing to sit in the back of a bus. (That entire incident was the subject of a made-for-TV movie in the 1990s).

Rickey seeks a player who will help him integrate baseball who has the strength to NOT fight back in the face of intense hatred from white players and fan base resistant to change. He decides that man is Robinson, who didn’t grow up in the Jim Crow South but rather in Pasadena, California.

Robinson, who starred in football at UCLA, is playing pro baseball for the barnstorming Kansas City Monarchs when he’s summoned to Rickey’s office. Just before this, however we watch as Robinson and the Monarchs encounter racism from a country gas-station owner who refused to let Robinson use the bathroom. An agitated Robinson responds that the Monarchs’ bus will be headed to another gas station for a 99-gallon fill-up then; money is the factor that leads the station owner to relent and open the bathroom to blacks.

That’s also what we see early on as the perceived motivation for bringing Robinson into the major leagues, with the hope that more of the Negro League stars will be able to follow. Only later will we find that Rickey perhaps had other motivations.

Of course, we know how this history plays out. We know Robinson was successful enough to be named the game’s first Rookie of the Year in 1947 and played for 10 years in Brooklyn. We know that Dodgers shortstop and Kentucky native Pee Wee Reese embraced Robinson in front of a virulent Cincinnati crowd, calming them down, and we know most of the Dodgers gradually accepted Robinson as one of their own. We know that many African-Americans did indeed follow Jackie quickly, including Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe to the National League’s Brooklyn Dodgers, and Larry Doby to the American League.

Yet, we still wonder as we watch how Robinson can take all the abuse he endures on the screen. Philadelphia manager Ben Chapman (terrifically portrayed by Alan Tudyk) baits Robinson with rapid-fire racial slurs, over and over and over. More than 60 years later, we’re uneasy listening to it, watching it. We feel the anger and want to run up into the screen to join the other Dodgers who have had enough of it and want to slug Chapman, all while Robinson takes a fastball to the forehead and sits dazed while the teams duke it out.

Jackie answered all the insults and abuse with his bat, with his feet and with his glove. Any pent-up frustration came out in private. There’s a reason his No. 42, handed out as an afterthought in 1947, is now the most important number in the game today and is why every MLB player wore it last Monday, the 66th anniversary of Robinson’s first game in the major leagues.

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