Apr 11, 2013, 3:30 PM EDT
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.
Apr 19, 2015, 9:25 PM EDT
Fans, be warned: Bryce Harper will stare you down until you do the right thing.
Apr 19, 2015, 8:35 PM EDT
Who can stop Nelson Cruz?
Apr 19, 2015, 7:45 PM EDT
Travis d’Arnaud suffered a fractured hand in Sunday’s game against the Marlins, so the Mets promoted prospect Kevin Plawecki.
Apr 19, 2015, 6:55 PM EDT
More Athletics/Royals drama unfolded on Sunday.
Apr 19, 2015, 6:05 PM EDT
White Sox pitching prospect Carlos Rodon is expected to be promoted on Monday.
Apr 19, 2015, 5:30 PM EDT
A’s right-hander Jesse Hahn made an early exit from his start Saturday against the Royals with a blister on his pitching hand and it sounds like he may miss a turn in Oakland’s rotation.
Apr 19, 2015, 4:53 PM EDT
“Counting games in St. Louis since the start of the 2003 season, the Reds are 3-29-2 in series against the Cardinals.”
Apr 19, 2015, 4:17 PM EDT
The 26-year-old d’Arnaud had a terrific second half last season for New York and he was off to a very promising start in 2015, hitting .317/.356/.537 with two home runs and 10 RBI in 11 games played.
Apr 19, 2015, 4:01 PM EDT
Brutal news here for the NL East-leading Mets.
Apr 19, 2015, 3:34 PM EDT
Jon Lester appears to have found a solution for his problems making throws to first base …
Apr 19, 2015, 2:52 PM EDT
And why should it?
Apr 19, 2015, 2:05 PM EDT
There’s so much gold in this new Red Bull spot for Cubs rookie third baseman Kris Bryant …
Apr 19, 2015, 1:30 PM EDT
Puig, who boasts an .886 through 34 plate appearances, is considered day-to-day.
Apr 19, 2015, 12:41 PM EDT
Carrasco was lucky to avoid a serious injury. These reschedulings seem to be completely precautionary.
Apr 19, 2015, 11:57 AM EDT
Span underwent surgery for a sports hernia in December and then needed a followup procedure for a core muscle injury in early March.
Apr 19, 2015, 11:04 AM EDT
It’s been a rough first couple of weeks for the 2015 Giants, who sit in last place in the National League West with a record of 4-9 and a -21 run differential. But they got to do some celebrating Saturday night …
Apr 19, 2015, 10:18 AM EDT
This will be the first start for Richards since he tore the patellar tendon in his left knee last August in Boston.
Apr 19, 2015, 9:25 AM EDT
Jason Heyward hit his first home run as a member of the Cardinals on Saturday in St. Louis …
Apr 19, 2015, 8:33 AM EDT
Mark down seven straight wins for the Mets, who will try for a four-game Citi Field sweep of the Marlins on Sunday afternoon behind staff ace Matt Harvey.
Apr 18, 2015, 11:26 PM EDT
Grant Balfour was designated for assignment following a disastrous Saturday night against the Yankees.
- Five Royals ejected in Sunday’s series finale against the Athletics 44
- White Sox will promote Carlos Rodon on Monday 12
- Another one bites the dust: Mets lose young catcher Travis d’Arnaud to fractured right hand 10
- National League GM says Phillies’ asking price for Cole Hamels hasn’t dropped “one bit” 12
- Giants receive their 2014 World Series championship rings 20
- Angels activate Garrett Richards for Sunday debut 2
- Settling the Score: Saturday’s results 38
- Video: Watch Kris Bryant get his first major league hit and RBI 12
- The Commissioner’s Office thinks that the Angels could indeed go after Josh Hamilton under his contract (153)
- “Why Ted Cruz is like the Atlanta Braves” (150)
- “We no longer need the terrorists. We’re now so good at terrorizing ourselves.” (143)
- Another argument in favor of making the DH universal (127)
- When it comes to Josh Hamilton, Arte Moreno is a craven opportunist, not a “smart businessman” (116)