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.
Dec 5, 2013, 2:44 PM EST
Brian Wilson and the Dodgers have agreed to a one-year, $10 million contract that includes a player option for 2015, according to Tim Brown of Yahoo! Sports. That’s a nice payday for Wilson, who looked great in 20 innings down the stretch and into the playoffs after missing all of 2012 following Tommy John elbow…
Dec 5, 2013, 1:30 PM EST
Miguel Cabrera isn’t the only MVP changing positions. As part of the Norichika Aoki trade the Brewers announced that Ryan Braun will move from left field to right field for 2014, opening up left field for Khris Davis after he showed a ton of power in a 56-game debut. Moving from one outfield corner to…
Dec 5, 2013, 11:55 AM EST
Edward Mujica‘s late-season struggles (and arm/back problems) caused him to go from the Cardinals’ closer to out of their playoff plans, but it hasn’t stopped him from getting a nice payday. Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports reports that the right-hander has agreed to a two-year, $9.5 million deal with the Red Sox. St. Louis acquired…
Dec 5, 2013, 11:11 AM EST
Kansas City has a new starting outfielder, as the Royals announced that they’ve acquired Norichika Aoki from the Brewers for left-hander Will Smith. Aoki has been a tremendous bargain for Milwaukee since coming over from Japan two seasons ago, playing nearly every day and hitting .287 with a .355 on-base percentage, 50 steals, and quality…
Dec 5, 2013, 10:40 AM EST
Washington has been linked to basically every left-handed free agent reliever and now Bill Ladson of MLB.com reports that the Nationals have “expressed interest” in Scott Downs. Downs was traded from the Angels to the Braves in July and then left off Atlanta’s playoff roster, but he pitched well overall with a 2.49 ERA and…
Dec 5, 2013, 10:01 AM EST
When the Reds fired Dusty Baker and hired Bryan Price as their new manager there was speculation that it could lead to Aroldis Chapman moving from the bullpen to the rotation, as Price had previously indicated he’d be in favor of getting more innings out of the stud left-hander. However, now that Price actually has…
Dec 5, 2013, 9:15 AM EST
Jay Weaver of the Miami Herald reports that the U.S. attorney’s office in Miami has charged three people with smuggling Cuban prospects into the United States, including smuggling, kidnapping, and extortion charges specifically related to Rangers center fielder Leonys Martin. According to Weaver two of the accused–Eliezer Lazo and Joel Martinez–are already serving prison sentences…
Dec 5, 2013, 8:32 AM EST
From MLB.com’s Rangers beat writer, T.R. Sullivan: The Rangers had serious trade discussions with the Blue Jays about catcher J.P. Arencibia before he was non-tendered on Monday, according to industry sources. A trade was close to being completed but the Rangers were reluctant to add another arbitration-eligible player. The Rangers were willing to do a…
Dec 4, 2013, 11:05 PM EST
A bullpen pickup for the Cubs, via USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale … The #Cubs signed left-handed reliever Wesley Wright to a one-year contract believed to be for $1.425 million. — Bob Nightengale (@BNightengale) December 5, 2013 Wright had a 3.69 ERA and 55/19 K/BB ratio in 53 2/3 innings this summer between the Astros and…
Dec 4, 2013, 10:18 PM EST
From Jon Heyman of CBS Sports comes word that the Yankees have agreed to a one-year contract with utilityman Kelly Johnson. It’s believed to be worth about $3 million and is only pending a physical. Johnson, who can play third base, second base and some corner outfield, batted .235/.305/.410 with 16 home runs and 52…
Dec 4, 2013, 9:34 PM EST
Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports has the inside info: The David Price sweepstakes is expected to heat up later this week, multiple executives with interest in the left-handed ace told Yahoo Sports, as the Tampa Bay Rays begin to survey the market for the former Cy Young winner and consider whether to trade him. Passan…
Dec 4, 2013, 8:51 PM EST
From Andy Martino, the Mets beat writer at the New York Daily News: A new possibility for shortstop has emerged for the Mets, as the team plans to send scouts to a showcase this weekend for Cuban defector Erisbel Arruebarruena, according to sources. The 23-year-old Arruebarruena, who has drawn comparisons to Detroit’s Jose Iglesias, was…
Dec 4, 2013, 7:37 PM EST
According to Patrick Newman of NPB Tracker, who has translated a Wednesday evening report from Sanspo in Japan, officials at Nippon Professional Baseball headquarters are prepared to accept a new outline of posting system rules from MLB execs. It’s not exactly clear at this point what their final agreement is going to look like —…
Dec 4, 2013, 6:23 PM EST
There was a report Sunday stating that the Cubs’ preference with Jeff Samardzija is to work out a long-term contract extension. But it appears that those negotiations have lost all momentum. ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick is hearing that the Chicago front office plans to “do some serious listening” on the 28-year-old right-hander at next week’s Winter…
Dec 4, 2013, 4:16 PM EST
Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski was initially coy last week when asked if Miguel Cabrera would be moving from third base to first base following the Prince Fielder trade, but today he admitted that’s the plan. No surprise, certainly, as Cabrera was banged up physically a lot this year and has long been stretched defensively…
Dec 4, 2013, 3:45 PM EST
Joe Nathan‘s deal with the Tigers is now official and it’s a two-year contract believed to be worth $20 million with a team option for 2016, when the closer will be 41 years old. Nathan made the right call to turn down his $9 million player option with the Rangers, correctly predicting that he could…
Dec 4, 2013, 2:14 PM EST
As a follow-up to yesterday’s reports that the Mariners were making a serious run at Robinson Cano, now Kevin Kernan of the New York Post reports that the free agent second baseman and his agent met with the Mariners in Seattle. Kernan’s source told him “the meeting went very well.” There’s also been some recent…
Dec 4, 2013, 11:47 AM EST
Mark Trumbo has been linked to various teams in trade rumors, but yesterday Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto tried to squash that speculation by telling Mike DiGiovanna of the Los Angeles Times: I wouldn’t even say we’re willing to trade Mark. We haven’t been out there shopping Trumbo. At the end of the day, our…
Dec 4, 2013, 11:19 AM EST
They couldn’t agree to a contract before Monday night’s deadline, so the Diamondbacks non-tendered Daniel Hudson, but Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic reports that the two sides are close to hammering out a new deal for him to stick around. Hudson is recovering from a pair of Tommy John elbow surgeries and figures to…
Dec 4, 2013, 10:47 AM EST
These huge, later-career deals never turn out great. The best you can hope for when you sign a 30-something baseball player to a hugely expensive long-term deal is that he will have a couple of good years on the front end to boost up his value, have a nice rebound year somewhere in the middle,…
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