Apr 11, 2013, 3:30 PM EST
We all know the story, I hope: baseball, due to an odious “gentleman’s agreement,” kept itself segregated and lily white for 50-60 years. Branch Rickey, as general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, set out in the mid 1940s to find just “the right man” — meaning a black man — to bring to the major leagues, thereby breaking that color barrier. Jackie Robinson was the right man. He made his major league debut in 1947, standing up to and utterly transcending the petty and hateful moods of the day, making the racists look like the retrograde buffoons they were, kicking off a Hall of Fame major league career and changing baseball — and America — forever.
But the fact that we all know that story creates one small problem: how in the heck do you make a movie out of it that delivers anything fresh, new or even the least bit suspenseful? With a fantastic hero and a fantastic story — which has the added benefit of being 100% true — at their disposal, this was the challenge for the makers of “42.” They did a good job with it. Not a great job. But a good job. One that’s worth the price of admission but that isn’t quite the Oscar-bait or piece of importance you get the sense they think they made.
The central problem with the film is a problem you see with almost all biopics: characters who appear to be overly-aware that they’re in a biopic. To be sure, Branch Rickey, Jackie Robinson and others knew for a fact that what they were doing was historically significant. But I’m struggling to imagine how the real Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey could ever have carried on a couple year’s worth of conversations in which every other phrase was a platitude or a grand declaration underscoring just how significant everything was. Yes, a filmaker needs a shorthand way to convey years’ worth of information and drama in a 115-minute film, but Harrison Ford’s Rickey and Chadwick Boseman’s Robinson often seem more like robots from a living history museum than real people.
Which isn’t to say that their performances aren’t good. In fact, in many ways they’re quite wonderful. Chadwick Boseman impresses as Robinson, especially in the baseball scenes. Actors frequently screw up baseball movies due to their inability to, you know, play baseball (I’m looking at you Tim Robbins, Tony Danza and many, many others), but Boseman captures Robinson’s essence as a ballplayer. Most impressively his running style and the way in which he terrorized pitchers trying to hold him on. While the thinner-bodied Boseman isn’t exactly a close physical match for Robinson, not once while watching him do you not believe he is, in fact, Jackie Robinson. That’s something that an awful lot of biopics screw up (I’m looking at you Leo DiCaprio in “The Aviator” and Jack Nicholson in “Hoffa”).
Harrison Ford is another matter. Much has been made about how he has hammed it up as Rickey. And yes, it is a bit jarring at first to see a longtime leading man like Ford putting on such a mannered, almost gimmicky performance. But over the course of the film Ford’s Rickey grew on me. It’s weird. You never forget that you’re watching Harrison Ford playing someone who is, more or less, Branch Rickey. But you can tell Ford had a lot of fun doing it and that sense of fun helps lighten things up somewhat in a film with many difficult and often uncomfortable scenes. And, strangely enough, knowing that it’s Harrison Ford there under those bushy eyebrows — Han Solo! Indiana Jones! Jack Ryan! The President of the United States! — adds some gravitas to a character which demands some gravitas.
With a sometimes ponderous script on one side and some winning performances on the other, what puts this movie over as a good one? The decision to focus most of the film’s attention on the baseball. After a couple of opening scenes set in offices, most of the rest of what’s important in “42” happens on the diamond, and those scenes look and feel great. Thanks to some nifty CGI Ebbets Field, the Polo Grounds, Forbes Field and Crosley Field look so real you’d think you’ve stepped into a time machine. The game play feels real too. Maybe a bit minor league (I know Robinson was fast, but man, those catchers couldn’t have thrown THAT poorly back then) but what is often a weakness in baseball movies — the actual baseball — is a strength here.
Other strengths: winning supporting performances from Alan Tudyk as Phillies manager Ben Chapman, John C. McGinley as Red Barber and Christopher Meloni as Leo Durocher. Tudyk is absolutely (and appropriately) horrifying as the racist Chapman. McGinley delivers Barber’s signature catch phrases (“in the catbird seat” and “tighter than a new pair of shoes on a rainy day”) as if they weren’t signature catch phrases, putting you in mind of a radio listener in 1947. Meloni’s Durocher takes a few more liberties — I sincerely doubt the real Durocher casually dropped things like “nice guys finish last” at the end of random phone calls — but he conveys Durocher’s larger-than-life persona in a few key scenes.
Ultimately, “42” is a good baseball movie which delivers on the baseball but not so much on the movie. History tells us what happened, so it can only do so much to be even a little bit suspenseful or surprising. And the format almost requires conversations to be exercises in exposition rather than true, character-driven dialogue. For this reason it doesn’t enter the baseball movie pantheon and, at times, can be a bit of a slog. But it’s definitely worth your time and your money.
Feb 27, 2015, 11:19 AM EST
If he’s called up to the majors Santana will get $2.5 million in guaranteed money.
Feb 27, 2015, 11:03 AM EST
When he’s done he’ll have played 18 years in the bigs and will be pushing 400 homers.
Feb 27, 2015, 10:47 AM EST
“The only way he is really going to help us is in the bullpen.”
Feb 27, 2015, 10:35 AM EST
Yes, this is mostly just an excuse to post a picture of Bartolo Colon
Feb 27, 2015, 10:15 AM EST
Cedeno had a brief stint in the majors last season with the Phillies.
Feb 27, 2015, 9:53 AM EST
Everyone worried that A-Rod would be a “distraction.” Well, he has been. And that’s a good thing.
Feb 27, 2015, 9:24 AM EST
Cashman and Girardi were poked constantly yesterday. They eventually responded. And the media seems to believe this is A-Rod’s fault.
Feb 27, 2015, 9:00 AM EST
Because he wasn’t dominant enough as it was.
Feb 27, 2015, 8:30 AM EST
But Major League Baseball is also trying to be “compassionate,” and is thus still not close to a decision.
Feb 27, 2015, 7:41 AM EST
Gehrig on going to Columbia: “I was seven years in the Freshman class!”
Feb 26, 2015, 11:02 PM EST
While Daniel Murphy would like to discuss a contract extension with the Mets, it looks like a foregone conclusion that he will test free agency after the 2015 season.
Feb 26, 2015, 9:49 PM EST
Braves outfielder Nick Markakis recently expressed frustration about how contract talks with the Orioles broke down over the winter.
Feb 26, 2015, 8:40 PM EST
Victorino gave up hitting from the left side late in 2013, but he’s ready to give it another shot.
Feb 26, 2015, 7:15 PM EST
It will be Harvey’s first game action since he underwent Tommy John surgery 16 months ago.
Feb 26, 2015, 6:06 PM EST
Santana hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2012 due to injury.
Feb 26, 2015, 5:17 PM EST
“I think hanging it up is going to be harder for guys than they realize, after being out of it for a year.”
Feb 26, 2015, 3:40 PM EST
But it’s a very different kind of battle.
Feb 26, 2015, 3:18 PM EST
Milwaukee out, Toronto in?
Feb 26, 2015, 2:06 PM EST
Shame on A-Rod for making the reporters obsess about him.
Feb 26, 2015, 1:34 PM EST
Maybe THIS is the year he finally stops swinging at everything
- Aramis Ramirez says 2015 will be his last year 10
- Francisco Rodriguez re-signs with the Brewers 8
- If addiction is an illness — and it is — Josh Hamilton shouldn’t be suspended 279
- Pirates open to massive extension for Andrew McCutchen 17
- Report: Josh Hamilton had a relapse this offseason that “involved at least cocaine” 85
- Yankees don’t plan on having to pay A-Rod’s $30 million in home run milestone bonuses 49
- San Francisco — and all of California — will consider a smokeless tobacco ban that includes MLB parks 131
- Rob Manfred says a return to a 154-game season could happen one day 66
- If addiction is an illness — and it is — Josh Hamilton shouldn’t be suspended (279)
- San Francisco — and all of California — will consider a smokeless tobacco ban that includes MLB parks (131)
- Report: The Yankees were “fuming” at how A-Rod handled his early arrival to spring training (114)
- Cuban prospect Yoan Moncada reportedly signs with the Red Sox for $31.5 million, plus $31.5 million in penalties (106)
- Gregg Zaun says young players should be physically abused and hazed by veterans. So they can learn respect. (105)