Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Earned Run: 42

We haven’t had a solid, clear, feel-good biopic in quite some time, so 42 will do nicely. It tells the story of Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman), a star baseball player in the late 1940s Negro Leagues who is given the chance to join the Brooklyn Dodgers by that team’s stubborn general manager (Harrison Ford). In the grand tradition of illustrated easy reader biographies – you know, the kind with a title like Jackie Robinson: Young Sports Trailblazer – this is a film of big broad strokes of biographical material spiced up with vivid, simple lessons about how terrible racism is and how average people with courage to do good things can sometimes make all the difference in the world. Writer-director Brian Helgeland, no stranger to sports movie formula given his anachronistic jousting movie A Knight’s Tale, brings a sense of sturdiness to the proceedings. It’s a brightly lit crowd-pleaser and a fine piece of Hollywood hero worship.

I’ll leave it to baseball historians to tell you how accurate the movie is, but as a movie, 42 works well to limit itself to Robinson’s ascent to the Dodgers and his first season playing for them. The incidents it chronicles are roughly those featured in the 1950 film The Jackie Robinson Story. Although that film starred Robinson as himself, I’ll go out on a limb and say that this new film is more truthful about the extent of the problems Robinson faced as the first African American to play in what was at the time an all-white league. There’s dissension from the public, sure, as well as from rival teams. In the film’s most effective sequence, an opposing team’s coach (Alan Tudyk) sends a relentless barrage of ugly slurs and stereotypes towards the batter’s box during every at bat. The film is also wise to avoid hiding the dissent that came from within the Dodgers organization, making it clear that Robinson’s mere presence in a previously all-white society was sometimes enough to unsettle otherwise reasonable people.

Despite the admirable details, Helgeland pulls his punches a bit. The ugliness of history is ugly here, but maybe not ugly enough. The thematic import of some scenes is underlined too forcefully, like in a cute but clunky scene of a little boy in the crowd explaining the game and, in the process, Robinson’s talent, to his mother. Still, it’s a better movie when it’s a baseball movie that’s incidentally a history lesson than when it’s the other way around. It’s my own personal prejudice that baseball is the most cinematic of sports, with naturally occurring long stretches of slow suspense and an interesting geometric playing field good for wide angles and interesting depth in framing. (That opinion may also have something to do with baseball being the only sport I find interesting to watch for any length of time.) Helgeland stages the games vividly and enjoyably, grabbing at scraps of tension related to both the game and the dynamics between the players, while never losing sight of Robinson’s presence.

As Robinson, Chadwick Boseman takes advantage of his first starring role, dripping charm and inviting sympathy with every glance. He plays the role as a simple ballplayer, aware of the pressure he’s under, but unaware of his legacy. If only all biopic performances were worn so lightly. There’s a dusting of romance care of Mrs. Robinson (Nicole Beharie, very fine) and the sweet sparkle between she and Boseman balances out the historical import that could’ve easily weighed the film down. The film has plenty of good performances from welcome character actors in sharply written historical caricatures. As the boundary-busting general manager Branch Rickey, Ford is a crusty charmer in what has to be his liveliest acting in quite a few years. Team management (Christopher Meloni, T.R. Knight), teammates (Lucas Black, Ryan Merriman, Hamish Linklater), and a radio announcer (John C. McGinley) are also given brief little moments in which to shine. It’s the well-rounded ensemble that helps fill out the background and keep the film from becoming only hagiography.

But what a wonderful sight to see such hero worship! Robinson’s a true black hero, a subject too infrequently taken up by filmmakers, at least on a massive, mainstream, studio level. (It’d make for an interesting double feature with Django Unchained in that regard.) When was the last time Hollywood deigned to roll out a major release focusing on a strong, complicated figure of African American history? I think you’d have to look back just over ten years, to 2001’s Ali, or twenty years, to 1992’s Malcolm X, to find such a picture. 42 may not have the artistry of those films, but is such a sturdy success that I’d love to see many more like it.  

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