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.
May 30, 2015, 3:03 PM EDT
Harper was hit in the back by a 93 mph fastball from Reds left-hander Tony Cingrani on Friday night.
May 30, 2015, 2:46 PM EDT
After making an early exit from last night’s start against the Reds, Nationals right-hander Stephen Strasburg has been placed on the 15-day disabled list due to neck tightness.
May 30, 2015, 2:20 PM EDT
Hechavarria injured his left shoulder in a collision with teammate Christian Yelich on Friday night.
May 30, 2015, 1:50 PM EDT
MLB’s Playing Rules Committee was expected to keep an eye on the strike zone this season to see if it needs to be changed for 2016. According to Jon Roegele of the Hardball Times, it continues to get bigger and lower.
May 30, 2015, 12:58 PM EDT
Anthony Rendon’s first attempt at a minor league rehab assignment was halted about a month ago due to an oblique strain, but he returned to game action last night with Double-A Harrisburg.
May 30, 2015, 12:01 PM EDT
Abreu initially injured the finger two weeks ago during batting practice.
May 30, 2015, 11:06 AM EDT
Dodgers manager Don Mattingly and catcher A.J. Ellis were ejected from Friday’s game against the Cardinals for arguing about the strike zone with home plate umpire Mike Winters.
May 30, 2015, 10:06 AM EDT
Dior designed the “silhouetted batter” logo in 1968, but didn’t receive official credit until 2009.
May 30, 2015, 9:27 AM EDT
Derek Norris struck out in his first four at-bats Friday night against the Pirates, but made up for it with a walk-off grand slam.
May 30, 2015, 8:55 AM EDT
A quick recap of a busy Friday around MLB, including a sterling performance from one of the best bargains in baseball.
May 29, 2015, 11:59 PM EDT
The Brewers designated reliever Brandon Kintzler for assignment on Friday afternoon but rescinded it and put him on the 15-day disabled list instead.
Tony Cingrani hits Bryce Harper in the back with a pitch, then complains he was too slow getting to first base
May 29, 2015, 11:41 PM EDT
Bryce Harper was hit square in the back with a fastball and had the gall not to sprint immediately to first base. What nerve!
May 29, 2015, 11:00 PM EDT
Alex “Chi Chi” Gonzalez will make his major league debut on Saturday against the Red Sox.
May 29, 2015, 10:10 PM EDT
Rafael Soriano still wants to pitch and has fired agent Scott Boras in an effort to find work.
May 29, 2015, 9:18 PM EDT
Josh Hamilton hit his first home run of the season on Friday night against the Red Sox.
May 29, 2015, 8:52 PM EDT
Rockies starter Chad Bettis is trying to throw a no-hitter against the Phillies.
May 29, 2015, 8:35 PM EDT
The Mets will be without catcher Travis d’Arnaud a little while longer due to a bone bruise in his wrist.
May 29, 2015, 8:08 PM EDT
The Mariners will lose starter James Paxton for a couple of weeks due to strained finger tendon.
May 29, 2015, 7:42 PM EDT
Stephen Strasburg came out of Friday’s start after facing one batter in the second inning against the Reds.
May 29, 2015, 6:55 PM EDT
More than one in two fans of major league baseball prefer having the pitcher hit as opposed to a designated hitter.
- Nationals place Stephen Strasburg on the 15-day disabled list with neck tightness 1
- Jerry Dior, designer of MLB’s iconic logo, has passed away 8
- Settling the Score: Friday’s results 21
- Tony Cingrani hits Bryce Harper in the back with a pitch, then complains he was too slow getting to first base 112
- Video: Josh Hamilton hits his first home run of the season 16
- Rockies starter Chad Bettis loses his no-hitter in the eighth inning 2
- Stephen Strasburg exits start in the second inning with an apparent injury 5
- More than half of polled baseball fans prefer having the pitcher hit 77
- Tony Cingrani hits Bryce Harper in the back with a pitch, then complains he was too slow getting to first base (112)
- The Big Unit: Wide Angle Watcher (90)
- And That Happened: Wednesday’s scores and highlights (89)
- Chipper Jones will fight you if you insult his “girl” (84)
- More than half of polled baseball fans prefer having the pitcher hit (77)