Saturday, July 27, 2013

"42" (2013)

Starring Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford and Nicole Beharie
Written and directed by Brian Helgelund
Rated PG-13 - Strong language, mild violence
Running Time: 128 Minutes

In the late 1940s, owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) makes a bold move: He decides to offer a place in his baseball club to a player from the negro leagues, a temperamental young player named "Jackie" Robinson (Chadwick Boseman). Of course, the fact that the United States is still a deeply segregated country means that this is a decision fraught with danger.

Jackie starts out with the Montreal Royals, quickly proving himself a talent, but running up against the insurmountable wall of racism. At every turn, Jackie is reminded that he's considered barely human by not only the populace, but even his own teammates. But, also at every turn, he finds Rickey pushing him to bigger and greater things. Rickey pushes Jackie to hold in his temper, to "have the guts not to fight back" whenever the white men around him push him around. Rickey wants him to play ball, and that's what Jackie wants, too.

Soon enough, Rickey gives Jackie a chance to move up to the Dodgers, becoming the first black player in the major leagues. Will that milestone prove to be a watershed moment for baseball as Rickey and Jackie hope, or will it be a grand embarrassment for all involved?

Jackie Robinson is, of course, a well-known name. He broke the race barrier for baseball, and is not only considered a great hero of the sport, but in American history in general. Presented here is not the story of his entire life, but just his short stint with the Royals and then the 1947 season with the Dodgers. Now, I'm neither a historian nor huge enough baseball fan to know exactly how historically accurate this film is, but just based on my own impressions of the film... it has some issues.

The biggest issue is that the film is entirely lacking in subtlety. It wears absolutely everything on its sleeve. Witness a scene in which Robinson says, "Hey kid..." and tosses a ball to a young black child at a train station. The young black kid chases after the train as it pulls away, pauses soulfully, and then puts his ear to the rails. He shouts, "I can still hear him!"


The film is loaded with so many moments that just seem to want to beat the audience over the head with "racism is unfair!" Much of Harrison Ford's dialogue as owner Branch Rickey consist of speeches to other characters about how Robinson is the future, and racism is unfair, and so on and so forth.

Scene after scene is so on the nose with "racism is unfair!" that it absolutely threatens to derail the entire film.  And yet, it doesn't. In fact, the opposite is true. The film is so open and earnest about its intentions, that it's actually kind of infectious. So much so that by the time there's a scene in which the manager of the Phillies, Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) is confronted after a racist tirade by one of Jackie's teammates, you're thinking, "Yes! Finally!"

The movie is full of good performances by a lot of familiar faces. You'll recognize a lot of the actors filling out the supporting roles, like Christopher Meloni as Dodgers manager Leo Derocher, John C. McGinley as announcer Red Barber, Lucas Black as teammate Pee Wee Reese, Brad Beyer as Kirby Higby and more.

The real stars of the show are Boseman and Ford, who give it their all. Boseman gives a great, restrained performance as Robinson. He's constantly holding back... something. Because the film is on the nose, we're flat out told this is because Robinson has a temper. But it works - Boseman is great, seemingly just on the edge of letting go and cracking some racist across the face with his bat.

Ford disappears into the role, affecting a great accent and cigar-chomping mannerisms. But the really great moment is when an injured Jackie Robinson asks him why he did all this, and Ford gets a sort of distant, emotional look as he digs into his past. It's probably the only subtle moment in the film, and stands out as one of its best.

The other best moments in the film are often the baseball sequences, which are a lot of fun. With all the white men on both teams actively against Robinson's success, these sequences become tense and suspenseful. But even these scenes, while entertaining like the rest of the film, are exactly what you expect them to be.

It is the most obvious, earnest biopic I've seen in a while. And while the movie wears its heart a little too much on its sleeve, but it's so earnest and well made. Couple that with the performances of its cast and impeccable production and you've got a film that's difficult to turn off.