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.
Mar 11, 2014, 7:25 PM EDT
Angels manager Mike Scioscia said Saturday that Josh Hamilton — who has been sidelined because of an early-spring calf strain — was on track to make his Cactus League debut this week. It won’t happen. Scioscia was asked again about Hamilton’s status on Tuesday in camp and told Jeff Fletcher of the Orange County Register that…
Mar 11, 2014, 6:17 PM EDT
This particular free agent saga is almost complete. According to beat writer Eduardo A. Encina of the Baltimore Sun, right-handed starter Ervin Santana is “likely to make a decision on his destination within the next day or two” because he wants to get into a camp as soon as possible to get properly tuned up…
Mar 11, 2014, 5:01 PM EDT
Justin Verlander got a late start to his spring training thanks to a core-muscle repair surgery in early January. But one gets the sense that he’ll be ready for the season regardless. Verlander pitched four innings against the Blue Jays today, throwing 52 pitches while giving up a single, walking two and striking out two. The key for…
Mar 11, 2014, 4:32 PM EDT
I saw Mark Prior at the Winter Meetings in Orlando. Indeed, he and I were staying on the same floor, so I saw him a lot. Walking up and down the hallway pretty frequently, always with a cell phone to his ear and a notebook in his hand. At various points I saw him in…
Mar 11, 2014, 4:16 PM EDT
Barry Bonds is back in a Giants uniform as a spring training instructor and Andrew Baggarly of CSNBayArea.com writes that “his every word was met with rapt attention” from players. For instance, outfielder Michael Morse got some tutoring on his swing and afterward told Baggarly: Oh my gosh, are you kidding me? The guy’s amazing.…
Mar 11, 2014, 3:15 PM EDT
I love when old stories like this surface. A few years ago Rangers third baseman Adrian Beltre and manager Ron Washington were tossed out of a spring training game by an umpire and then … well, I’ll let Stefan Stevenson of the Forth Worth Star Telegram take it from here: However, after the ejection Washington…
Mar 11, 2014, 2:50 PM EDT
A little sigh of relief from Nationals camp, where right-hander Doug Fister was able to play catch this morning without any issues after previously being sidelined by elbow soreness. Fister first complained of soreness in early February and James Wagner of the Washington Post reports that he’s “been treated with anti-inflammatory medicine, ice and rest.”…
Mar 11, 2014, 2:04 PM EDT
This is odd. And potentially distracting: The Red Sox tried to spice things up in spring training Tuesday. After each pitch, it was mandated that the JetBlue Park public address announcer would announce the ball or strike call, and the count. Rob Bradford of WEEI talks to the guy whose idea it was, how it will work and…
Mar 11, 2014, 1:48 PM EDT
Oscar Taveras‘ ankle problems have lingered following last season’s surgery and now the stud outfield prospect is having hamstring issues in the same leg, so it sounds like the Cardinals have all but ruled out his making the team. Cardinals manager Mike Matheny told Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post Dispatch that Taveras “needed…
Mar 11, 2014, 1:13 PM EDT
New Tigers manager Brad Ausmus accidentally gave a steal sign in a spring training game, so old Tigers manager Jim Leyland talked to Chris Iott of MLive.com about a time he once did that same thing while with the Pirates in 1992: “Tom Prince was on first,” Leyland said. “He was a slow catcher. We…
Mar 11, 2014, 1:01 PM EDT
ESPN shows us what a renaissance man Barry Bonds truly was: Impressive! RT @AviMillerBSR: According to @ESPN, Barry Bonds holds the record for most home runs in @NBA history. pic.twitter.com/6UHpTVS8QV — Bob Harkins (@Bharks) March 11, 2014 Also: he scored more goals than Muhammed Ali and was the last horse to win the Triple…
Mar 11, 2014, 12:03 PM EDT
People love to use baseball analogies because baseball is a pretty common and relatable frame of reference. But one thing you can be sure of: nearly 100% of the time someone is using a baseball analogy in politics, they are either mangling the baseball or mangling the politics. To wit, a senator using it to…
Mar 11, 2014, 11:49 AM EDT
Mark Mulder, whose comeback attempt ended before it even really began thanks to a torn Achilles’ tendon, has been released by the Angels. Mulder has said that he’s not ruling out attempting another comeback next year, but he’ll miss the entire season recovering from the injury and at age 37 the odds of him succeeding…
Mar 11, 2014, 11:14 AM EDT
Braves right-hander Kris Medlen will seek a second opinion after an MRI exam on his sore elbow showed “some involvement of the ligament.” In other words: Not good. Medlen exited Sunday’s game after grabbing his elbow following one pitch and then short-hopping his next pitch to the plate, making his way into the Braves’ dugout.…
Mar 11, 2014, 10:47 AM EDT
This time last year Brandon League had just signed a three-year, $22.5 million contract to become the Dodgers’ closer and now he’s in danger of not even making the team out of spring training. League was awful last season, losing the closer gig and being demoted to a mop-up role while posting a 5.30 ERA…
Mar 11, 2014, 10:15 AM EDT
Signed largely for his career-long durability, 37-year-old Bronson Arroyo has been sidelined with a bulging disk in his back for almost all of Diamondbacks camp and the injury hasn’t shown much improvement. He’s able to play catch, but Steve Gilbert of MLB.com reports that Arroyo was sore and stiff after doing so Monday and could…
Mar 11, 2014, 9:30 AM EDT
Say what you want about Ryan Braun but now, as opposed to in the past, he is realistic. He talks to Bob Nightengale of USA Today about what it’ll be like to be Public Enemy Number One when he goes on the road this year: “I’m sure it will be a bit adventuresome at times…
Mar 11, 2014, 9:03 AM EDT
In December I ranked the managers from most handsome to least handsome. Last week, this photo was taken: I’d like to think that AP photographer Gene J. Puskar took this specifically for my benefit. Also, if you’re in to this sort of thing, #1 and #2 posed together yesterday. My girlfriend is the one who…
Mar 11, 2014, 8:25 AM EDT
In the wake of yesterday’s Barry Bonds press conference, Ken Rosenthal talks about Bonds’ Hall of Fame case. Rosenthal opposes Bonds’ induction. He says this about those who do not: I hate when some in favor of Bonds’ and Clemens’ candidacies disdainfully describe voters like myself as “gatekeepers of morality.” Guilty as charged, I guess, but…
Mar 11, 2014, 12:03 AM EDT
Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2014 season. Next up: The Chicago Cubs. The Big Question: Is the wait almost over? It has been 105 long years since the north…
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