The first thing one needs to know about the new movie “42” is that it is not a baseball movie. It is a movie about social history. There is relatively little baseball action in it. Don’t buy a ticket expecting “It Happens Every Spring” or even “The Natural.”
The second thing is that the movie doesn’t reveal much about the personality of Jackie Robinson, the first African-American player in at least twentieth century Major League baseball. Writer and director Brian Helgeland manages to give us a dignified Robinson, hiding his anger at racist treatment he received. In other words, we get to know that Robinson was a man of character, but we learn less about his personality. What did he like besides duty?
Given what the movie tries to accomplish, though, “42” is pretty successful. Harrison Ford frequently disappears into his role as Branch Rickey, the baseball executive who, after the Second World War, signed Robinson away from the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Baseball League and promoted him in one year to the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Chadwick Boseman plays Robinson so well that he continues to be an admirable cipher, unlike, for example, Rachel Robinson who, played by Nichole Beharie, becomes a recognizable person. Some of the cast members with smaller parts—Christopher Meloni as adulterous team-manager Leo Durocher, Max Gail as replacement manager Bert Shotton, and especially multi-faceted Alan Tudyke as the racist Phillies manager—come off with full honors.
Perhaps it is no mistake that the ball players of the cast don’t any of them come alive. When Pee Wee Reese, the Dodgers’ star shortstop, puts his arm about Robinson as they stand on the field in Cincinnati, one isn’t sure Lucas Black, who plays the part, and Helgeland intend us to believe Reese is sincere or not. This robs the scene of emotional authority.
The script contains a memorable line, but not one associated with the civil rights movement. Rickey, who is full of speeches, can’t get out of a scene without making a reference to the Almighty. This seems reasonable given the times in which the action is set. In one speech he explains why he picked Robinson to be the first African-American he would sign. “He is a Methodist. I am a Methodist. God is a Methodist.”
Helgeland has either written or directed or both a number of well-known films, including “A Knight’s Tale,” “Man on Fire,” “Mystic River,” “Payback,” and “L.A. Confidential.” Here he has decided to tell about Robinson’s signing and then about the 1947 season, the player’s first year in the majors and the year he played first base.
But the movie shows little interest in reproducing any of the action of the season (or of the World Series). More time is spent showing Ben Chapman haranguing Robinson during one game than is given over to base running and fielding in the entire movie.
As an old Cardinals fan, I was interested that hustling Enos Slaughter makes an appearance just long enough to spike Robinson while base running. The act was supposed to be racially motivated, but Slaughter made it a practice to spike White Eddie Stanky of the Dodgers whenever possible. He’d spike anyone. Ironically, Slaughter has a higher career stolen base success rate than did Robinson, and his “mad dash” in the ’46 World Series is still legendary. It would be a treat to see that historic bit of base stealing dramatized and on the big screen.
Helgeland allows “42” to slip into a steady rhythm with one-set scenes occurring regularly and with fairly long talking scenes the primary medium of the film. The movie begins, I was surprised to see, with a pre-credits explanation of racial segregation. If Americans have forgotten institutional racism, doesn’t it seem as if we’re a long way toward making unnecessary yammering, earnest movies about the end of segregation in baseball? If so, “42’s” mix of action and talk is probably way off.