Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Talkin’ Baseball: “42”

Movie Review by Jack Silbert
It might still be too chilly to bring the family to the ballpark. Or maybe it’s too pricey. But if the kids have any interest whatsoever in baseball, you owe it to them to go see 42.

If you’re an adult baseball fan, even a casual one, there are a few things you already know about Jackie Robinson:
• He broke the color barrier in major league baseball.
• He withstood a lot of threats and abuse.
• He was awesome.
• He died young.
• He wore number 42, which has been retired throughout baseball.

And I can’t say that the movie reveals a whole lot more. But as a fact-based, heartstring-tugging baseball flick, it’s very effective. And for young sports fans, it feels like essential viewing.

Though not entirely advertised as such, this really feels like a family movie. Yes, there is a PG-13 rating. I imagine this is a direct result of repeated use of the N-word and other racial slurs. I do recommend a preliminary discussion on this subject. And rest assured that the film presents such language in a very negative light.

Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey speaks
with Chadwick Boseman as Robinson.
This ain’t exactly a Fellini film. You get extremely straightforward storytelling (A leads to B leads to C, as Robinson advances from the Negro Leagues to the minors to “The Show”), fairly one-dimensional characters, some hokey sentiments, and a very traditional, staged-looking style. It’s a boilerplate baseball movie, with all the positives and negatives that entails. There’s the devoted wife in the stands and the dogged reporter filing dispatches from the road. There’s the mean teammate and the understanding one. And there’s the headstrong, talented kid finally getting his big chance. But as you realize this is the true tale of JACKIE FREAKING ROBINSON, the impact really sinks in.

Unknown Chadwick Boseman does solid if unremarkable work as Jackie Robinson, with a Denzel-esque vocal delivery. He dependably carries us through the story. Harrison Ford is perhaps receiving too much praise for his crotchety performance as daring Dodgers owner Branch Rickey. But, he’s quite convincing and rather charming in the role, even if it’s not a particularly layered portrayal.

What works in a big way are the deeply emotional moments, and there are plenty of them. Sure, it’s often manipulative: The music swells and here come the waterworks. But if the recreation of Pee Wee Reese’s legendary on-field embrace with Robinson doesn’t get you choked up, you may want to remove your chest plate and go in for regularly scheduled maintenance.

Nicole Beharie as Robinson's wife, Rachel.
The many baseball scenes are perfectly rendered, hyper realistic and lovingly shot. We’re right there with the dirt, the grass, packed crowds in old-time stadiums, the familiar crack of the bat and a hard slide into second. (This is indeed an MLB-blessed project.) That they generally stick to the facts quite often prevents things from going too over the top: Jackie walks on four pitches or hits a weak single, when a massive Roy Hobbs-ian homerun off a lighting tower would’ve been more dramatic.

Making the baseball all the more believable is a great turn from John C. McGinley (Scrubs’s Dr. Perry Cox) as legendary broadcaster Red Barber. Chris Meloni (Special Victim Unit’s Elliot Stabler) has a lot of fun as feisty, no-nonsense manager Leo Durocher. Barney Miller fans will be happy to see Max “Wojo” Gail as the new Dodgers manager, but he doesn’t get much to do.

Boseman as Robinson answers a few questions for the press.
If the movie doesn’t go too deep under the surface of the Jackie Robinson story, it is just about the perfect introduction for younger viewers. Everything is explained so clearly. Groundbreaking African American sportswriter Wendell Smith (well played by Andre Holland) helps put events in historical context. Kids will get to see “white only” restrooms and the very differing social attitudes in California and the deep South. Rickey’s motivations for desegregating the game—moral, financial, and pure baseball sense—are discussed more than once. Children will learn that Jewish and Italian players were also a novelty at the time. But the non-stop abuse that Robinson took—and the discrimination, fear, and ignorance that he continually faced—may be truly eye-opening for kids. And this opens up a world of learning opportunities in both history and character development.

Turning the other cheek is easier said than done, but Robinson is a fascinating real-life example for kids of that conflict resolution strategy, and why it’s beneficial. The effect that a parent’s hatred can have on a child is briefly explored. And thankfully, children’s ability to be colorblind is celebrated as well.

There’s certainly much historical weight here, but it doesn’t really bog things down. On the contrary, the movie is generally breezy, and definitely feels shorter than its 2-hour, 8-minute running time. It’s easy to watch and tremendously satisfying, all the way through the “what happened to” updates before the closing credits. (The movie itself only focuses on Robinson’s first major league season.)

In the dugout and the locker room, the movie shows kids that people can slowly drop their preconceived notions and judge someone simply as a fellow human being. We can easily see parallels in the present day, in news stories about how teammates would react to gays in professional sports. Or every time a girl wants to play on a boys’ team. The struggle to be treated equally is far from over, but Jackie Robinson helped pave the way for us all.

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