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Movie Review: 42


Robinson's most iconic moment; stealing home in the 1955 World Series.

Robinson’s most iconic moment; stealing home in the 1955 World Series.

So, one thing we’ve noticed about having a kid is how our television and movie watching habits have changed.  Here’s a summary:

1. We never go out to movies anymore.

2. We watch about 30 minutes of something between the time we get him down at night and the time we have to go to bed and collapse from exhaustion.

3. If we do rent a movie …  it is something that came out months ago and is either on HBO or on-demand for $5 bucks.  We watch it in 30 minute increments around his sleep schedule.

So, given the above parameters, we just finished watching the movie 42, which chronicles Jackie Robinson‘s breaking of the color barrier in Baseball in the mid 1940s.   Some Links about the topic: IMDB’s movie page, Jackie Robinson’s Wikipedia page and Robinson’s Baseball-Reference page.

Here’s what I thought.

Story and Acting: My wife enjoyed the movie moreso than I did; perhaps it is because of the “love interest” storyline between Jackie and his wife, or perhaps it is because she doesn’t know the whole story of Robinson.  I knew, for example, that Robinson won the Rookie of the Year award in his debut season and a subsequent MVP award, so someone who doesn’t know Robinson’s history would watch the latter half of the movie regarding his MLB debut and maintain some suspense as to how he performed.  The various players just sort of allude to Robinson’s talent level here or there; never letting on just how good of a player he is.

Robinson’s relationship with his wife is a large feature on the movie.  I have no idea how pertinent this is to the man and this story, having not yet read one of the many Jackie Robinson books out there (the most frequently mentioned being Baseball’s Greatest Experiment by Jules Tygiel and Opening Day by Jonathan Eig, not to mention the fact that Robinson seems to have penned at least 4 autobiographies).  But enough emphasis is given that at one point my wife asked, “He doesn’t frigging cheat on her, does he?”  Perhaps a statement on our low expectations of professional athletes in the modern world, thanks to the travails of stars like Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan.

Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey might be the best acting job I’ve ever seen him perform outside of Witness or The Fugitive.  I thought Ford was washed up as an actor, but he played a compelling, complex Rickey character who at times was using Robinson’s debut both as a money-grabbing ploy and a morality play.  The two relatively unknown actors playing Jackie and Rachel Robinson were fantastic, all things considered.  Chadwick Boseman and Nicole Beharie both gave excellent performances.

The story itself, as tends to happen, left out some details.  It had to, in order to fit into a 2 hour time period.  I wish they would have spent more time discussing Robinson’s college and military background; he was an absolutely fantastic all-around athlete, winning varsity letters at UCLA in FOUR different sports.  Instead the movie seemed to imply that Robinson had been kicked out of the military (which did not occur) and barely mentioned his background prior to his being plucked out of the Negro Leagues in Birmingham.  Fair enough; Robinson’s legacy had to do with baseball, not his collegiate football accomplishments.

Baseball Sequences: Unlike some baseball movies we’ve seen, at least the pitchers looked like they could pitch in this movie.  Boseman’s ability to look natural at the plate was nearly convincing; per his biography he’s an athlete who still plays basketball.  As it turned out though, they didn’t really have to show a ton of baseball footage despite this film’s title subject; most of this story was to bring to the screen the oppressive and unbelievable racism prevalent in the mid 1940s and to subsequently show how the Robinsons faced it.  Nowhere was this more prevalent or obvious than in the first Brooklyn-Philadelphia game, where the opposing manager (Ben Chapman) stood on the field and hurled insult after insult at Robinson in what seemed like pure racism, but was later explained away as “gamesmanship” by the coach.

Unfortunately, the best baseball sequences didn’t appear until the credits started to roll, where what looked like B-film capturing the players making diving stops in the field appear in slow motion.  Perhaps it is fitting that the baseball action is limited; this isn’t really a “baseball story” like The Natural or Major League is; it does not depend on believable baseball action to make its point.  Robinson could walk and triumphantly trot to first base and it can appear as a monumental moral statement.

Some clarifications on the legacy of early black players: the movie implies that the Dodgers were considering Robinson, Roy Campanella and Satchel Paige to be the first player to integrate.  What’s left unsaid is that the real “star” of the Negro Leagues at the time was Josh Gibson.  Also interesting to me was the fact that a second black player named Johnny Wright was signed in early 1946 and played in the minors the same season that Robinson debued.  I didn’t necessarily know this, but Larry Doby broke the color barrier in the American League just a couple months after Robinson did, to very little fan fare (see this list on Wikipedia of the earliest black players by date and team).  I only mention this because the film post-credits say that (paraphrased) Robinson paved the way for black athletes like Campanella and Don Newcombe.  That’s true: Campanella and Newcombe were the next two black players to play for Brooklyn, but not in the major leagues.

Conclusion: Decent movie.   Probably will never watch it again.  I may be in the minority though; the film grossed nearly $100M and now stands as the 2nd highest grossing baseball film ever made.   I’m not sure i’ve got it in my top 10 baseball movies of all time, but it may slide into contention for best baseball-related drama.  I’ll keep it in mind the next time I update my Baseball Movie post.

What did you guys think?