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.
Sep 20, 2014, 2:29 PM EDT
With Derek Jeter’s career coming to an end, the Yankees will open the gates early next week for their final home series of the season.
Sep 20, 2014, 1:50 PM EDT
Hudson has a 9.92 ERA over four starts this month.
Sep 20, 2014, 1:01 PM EDT
Twins right-hander Phil Hughes has thrived with a change of scenery this season and he could finish the year with a place in MLB history.
Sep 20, 2014, 12:16 PM EDT
Tanaka has been out since July 8 with a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, but he’ll make his return Sunday against the Blue Jays.
Sep 20, 2014, 11:29 AM EDT
I’m going to guess that the little girl is suffering from Jeter fatigue.
Sep 20, 2014, 10:49 AM EDT
John Lackey had his most recent turn in the Cardinals’ rotation skipped due to a “dead arm,” but he was impressive in his return last night.
Sep 20, 2014, 10:09 AM EDT
Michael Cuddyer has had a really tough time staying healthy this season, but the impending free agent is making up for lost time right now.
Sep 20, 2014, 9:31 AM EDT
A fan sacrificed his popcorn to catch a home run ball last night at Turner Field.
Sep 20, 2014, 8:57 AM EDT
A quick recap of a busy Friday around MLB, including the A’s getting back in the win column.
Sep 19, 2014, 11:45 PM EDT
A Phillies pitching prospect violated the minor league drug policy and was suspended 50 games, beginning at the start of the 2015 season.
Sep 19, 2014, 11:05 PM EDT
Russell Martin hit a timely three-run home run to send the Pirates to a late win over the Brewers on Friday night, extending their lead for the second NL Wild Card slot.
Sep 19, 2014, 10:40 PM EDT
David Ortiz found yet another reason to hear his name uttered in the same breath as Ted Williams.
Sep 19, 2014, 9:55 PM EDT
Jacoby Ellsbury suffered a strained right hamstring in the fourth inning on Friday night against the Blue Jays. He’ll undergo an MRI to determine the severity of the injury.
Sep 19, 2014, 9:15 PM EDT
The Angels’ rotation is thin beyond Matt Shoemaker, Jered Weaver, and C.J. Wilson, so manager Mike Scioscia may do the obvious thing and utilize a three-man rotation in the ALDS.
Sep 19, 2014, 8:35 PM EDT
There isn’t much time left in the regular season, which may mean Mets fans won’t see Juan Lagares patrol the outfield until spring training in 2015.
Sep 19, 2014, 8:02 PM EDT
Perkins, who had a 2.44 ERA as recently as August 25, finishes the season with a 3.65 ERA and 66/11 K/BB ratio in 62 innings while saving 34 games.
Sep 19, 2014, 7:50 PM EDT
Jose Bautista offended Yankees reliever Shawn Kelley with his celebratory behavior after hitting a game-tying two-run home run in the eighth inning of last night’s game.
Sep 19, 2014, 7:19 PM EDT
Get well soon, Stretch.
Sep 19, 2014, 6:55 PM EDT
Hyun-Jin Ryu didn’t throw as expected on Friday, but hopes to do so before the weekend is over. He’s hoping to return to the Dodgers in time for the playoffs.
Sep 19, 2014, 6:30 PM EDT
Los Angeles is 22-4 with Kershaw on the mound this season.
- Phil Hughes could finish the season with the best K/BB ratio in MLB history 4
- Settling the Score: Friday’s results 21
- Clayton Kershaw wins his 20th game of the season 10
- Why are so many people acting like Bryce Harper is a bum? 79
- It certainly looks like Barry Bonds’ criminal conviction is going to be overturned 89
- And That Happened: Thursday’s scores and highlights 72
- VIDEO: Derek Jeter hits first home run at Yankee Stadium this season 11
- Ron Washington claims he resigned because he cheated on his wife 103
- Geddy Lee’s baseball obsession makes it really hard for me to hate Rush (108)
- Ron Washington claims he resigned because he cheated on his wife (103)
- It certainly looks like Barry Bonds’ criminal conviction is going to be overturned (89)
- And That Happened: Tuesday’s scores and highlights (83)
- Umpire ejects jackwagon fan heckling Bryce Harper in Atlanta last night (82)