Film gives snapshot of legend but fails to show bigger picture

By Bill Felber

At the conclusion of at least one screening of “42,” the new Jackie Robinson biopic, here last week, the audience suddenly broke out in applause. I’m not a big movie-goer, but that was a first in my lifetime.

The audience reaction was, I thought, plainly directed toward Robinson himself: the ideals for which he stood, his willingness to accept the task given him, his handling of the difficulties that task presented, and — this being America — his success.

In that context, the audience reaction was as appropriate as it was unusual. The onscreen portrayal is a fair and largely accurate documentary-style portrayal of the on-field events of the time period covered, essentially from the end of World War II until mid-September of 1947.

Judging the accuracy of the off-field events, which are central to establishing the context of the movie, is a bit more difficult because there are fewer documentary records. We know of one contextual error in that regard: Dodger scout Clyde Sukeforth did not contact Robinson at a gas station while the player was riding a team bus through central Missouri with the Monarchs. But screen writers are allowed more than that element of license as they strive to shape the inevitably discombobulated moments of anybody’s life into a two-hour piece of entertainment, instructive or otherwise.

I am not a film critic. Beyond the observation that I found all of the characterizations presented in the film—even the minor ones—to be essentially believable, I will leave any assessment of the performances to those whose job is film criticism. Certainly there were flaws, as there inevitably are in “based on a true story” movies. Dutch Leonard was not left-handed, and Fritz Ostermuller was not right-handed. Forbes Field had a brick wall in left field, not a board one.

But only the most cold-hearted baseball historian would find these distracting from the overall theme.

And to note those imperfections without noting the remarkable nods to accuracy contained in the film would be unfair to the director. Yes, Jackie Robinson really did score the only run in the bottom of the eighth inning of an early season game against Philadelphia, which was managed by the incendiary Ben Chapman. Yes, the Dodgers did clinch the pennant on Sept. 17 against the Pirates, with Robinson homering off Ostermuller— although that blow came in the fourth inning rather than in walk-off fashion. Yes, some of Robinson’s teammates did initially rebel against his presence, and yes, Kirby Higbe was traded as a result to Pittsburgh (with three other players) for $100,000 and Al Gionfriddo.

One of the more informative ways to assess “42” is to compare it to the other well-known movie on the same theme, “The Jackie Robinson Story.” That film was made in 1950, while Robinson was at the height of his baseball stardom, and featured Robinson playing himself. Those interested in a first-hand comparison need not wait for it to come around on AMC or TMC. You can watch it start to finish on Youtube at any time.

What you will see is a more sanitized version of the events that acknowledges the racism confronting Robinson, but does not emphasize its more overt aspects. Robinson plays himself as a more self-disciplined figure than the subsumed aggressive nature he is (accurately) given in “42.”

Greater dramatic license is also taken with the on-field action in the 1950 version, which overstates Robinson’s performance in both the season-opening game and the clinching one.

Yet at times “42” appears to have been written literally from the “Jackie Robinson Story” script, as well as from Robinson’s published biography. The interchange in which Rickey tells Robinson he wants “a player with the guts NOT to fight back” is among several moments reprised in literal fashion from the first film to the second.

The fairest and most important criticism to be made of “42”—it has been made in several reviews and I share it—is that by concluding when it does, the movie misleadingly truncates the evolving message of Robinson’s life’s work while simultaneously over-estimating baseball as an element of post-war race relations. In both cases, the facts are contrary and significant.

Baseball certainly was an important part of postwar American culture, but to equate its integration to the broader fight is to give it a status the facts do not support. I am reminded of Churchill’s description of the Battle of Britain vis a vis World War II: Not the end, not even the beginning of the end, but perhaps the end of the beginning. It would be well for movie-goers to keep in mind that the concluding scene of “42” predates Brown v. Board of Education by seven years, Little Rock by a decade and the Selma bridge by the better part of two decades.

Indeed, Robinson was a central figure in the broader Civil Rights fight, a fact that leaves the portrait of him in “42” open to charges of one-dimensionality. He took outspoken and controversial positions on numerous contemporary issues, among them his controversial testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, his early backing of the Vietnam War, and his advocacy of 1960s civil rights legislation. As his comfort level with his public role increased, he became more and more outspoken, no more so than when we left the 1964 Republican National Convention—which had nominated Barry Goldwater — asserting that he now knew “how it felt to be a Jew in Hitler’s Germany.”

He was, in other words, an evolving figure,” an aspect “42” fails to convey.

Bill Felber is the author of six books—five on baseball. The most recent of those, “Inventing Baseball,” is being published this year by SABR.

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