Sunday, April 14, 2013

42: A Review

Before I get to my review of 42, the bio-pic of American legend Jackie Robinson that arrived in theatres on Friday, I'll just have some housekeeping to let all you loyal readers know what's coming up in the next few days.

Tomorrow, I'll be down in Buffalo for their double header against Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and I'll be looking forward both to seeing Coca-Cola Field as well as the Bisons actually play this week.  If you're in the Toronto/Buffalo area, you'll know that the weather has not been, um... spring-like, and the fellows down the QEW have not been able to get any games in.

While I'm down at the ball park, I'll be taking notes and hopefully have some great information about the Jays' AAA affiliate for all of you.

Tomorrow and Monday, I'll be working on a couple of things for all of you as well.  I'll try to get my Pitching edition of "Streak or Trend?" up for Monday and I'll also have a wrap up of the first week and a half of Jays' minor league ball on Monday.  This will be a weekly feature that will look at who's hot and who's not, and what's going on with the Jays farm clubs.

Finally, the first edition of the Blue Jays from Away Podcast is in the works.  What I hope to be a weekly feature will involve interviews, and updates on the world of the Blue Jays.  There's lots of stuff going on in Blue Jays Land, from the disastrous Jose Reyes injury to some outstanding performances by Jays prospects.

I'll also be providing a review of Out of the Park Baseball 14 when I've gotten around to playing it enough to have opinions.  As you can see, it's a busy weekend, so that review won't come out for at least a week.

And now, the review.

42 is a difficult film to review for someone like me.  As a serious baseball fan who is interested in the history of the game, I know Jackie Robinson's story.  I know how heroic he and Branch Rickey were.  I know what kind of response he got and the taunting he had to endure in order to stick around.  And I know how difficult it is to make an inspiring story like this without making it sappy and maudlin.

Trying to see this film with fresh eyes, I can see that it accomplishes exactly what it set out to.  It presents Jackie Robinson's story to a new generation of people who may not even know who he was and it dramatizes the story to show him and his wife Rachel overcoming the segregation, marginalization and flat out racism that they faced.

42 also shows the divisions in the Dodgers' clubhouse that the black man's presence sowed.  While some players eventually welcomed Robinson to the team, others could not get over their lifetime of prejudice and were eventually traded away by General Manager Branch Rickey who wanted unity on the team.

Chadwick Boseman was a great choice for Robinson.  Serious and earnest, Boseman portrays Robinson as a man who is tired of accepting the second rate status that the colour of his skin affords him, especially in the deep south where he played often as a member of the Kansas City Monarchs.  A highlight of the film is Robinson's breakdown after being taunted to the brink of his self-control by Philadelphia manager Ben Chapman (played chillingly by Alan Tudyk).  Boseman plays the scene with necessary restraint while he's on the field but explodes in frustration after retreating to the tunnel underneath the stands where he is eventually counselled by Rickey (Harrison Ford).

Playing Rickey, Ford shows more interest in actually acting (that is, in creating a character apart from himself) than he has in years.  Adopting some of Rickey's mannerisms and speech patterns, Ford portrays Rickey as a religious man who truly wants to make a societal change but covers his tracks with stories of wanting to take advantage of the spending power that the Brooklyn's black community had or being able to exploit a "market inefficiency" (to use Moneyball terminology) by tapping the huge reservoir of talent playing in the Negro Leagues.

I found Nicole Beharie's performance as Rachel (Rae) Robinson to be somewhat mannered and forced.  There are actors who have certain facial mannerisms that take me out of the moment: Beharie is a mouth actor.  For every emotion crossing her face, her mouth moves three or four times, making me watch the actor and not the character.

Not that the script really helped her out.  The characters don't really develop in 42.  Robinson is the stoic, serious ballplayer who breaks the colour barrier with the weight of the entire race on his shoulders.  Rachel is his loving, supportive wife.  Rickey is the white innovator.  It's the story that's the biggest selling point here, but it tries to insert a love story on top of Robinson's baseball story.  This love story isn't really a story.  There's no arc to it.  Jackie and Rachel are in love.  He gets his chance to make a secure living in the (white) Major Leagues.  They get married.  They have a child.  At the end of the film, they're still in love.  No real story here, it's just a part of Robinson's life that is depicted the same way throughout the film.  In a film that runs 128 minutes long, this could have been cut back considerably.

Another criticism that I have is that he direction and the music score are a little bit ham-handed to unnecessarily call attention to the drama.  Heroic horn melodies underscore the moments that writer/director Brian Helgeland wants to bring tears to our eyes.  The enormity of Robinson's accomplishments and the way that he wins over his teammates by his on-field success are highlighted by Hollywood obviousness.  I'm sure that this film is directed at the wider American public who doesn't have the fanatical interest in baseball that I do, but still, it would bother me even if it was a film about soccer.

I actually don't really mind the fact that Jackie's year in Montreal was simply skipped over in between the time Rachel discovers that she's pregnant and the birth of their daughter and replaced by a title that reads "8 months later."  I get it.  It's an American film about a great American legend. Let's not let a little old (much more progressive) country like Canada get in the way.  It's fine. (But if it's not fine, read here for a great article about Robinson's time in Montreal.*)

The one really annoying thing about this film was the way that I'm sure all baseball films will be made going into the future.  With a digital ball.  When the digital ball flies out of a real actor's hand and a real actor swings a bat and the digital ball goes flying unnaturally, it looks horrible.  Yes, a pitcher pitching to a batter who needs to hit the ball a certain way is probably the most difficult and uncontrollable part of making a baseball movie.  But hey, Mr. Helgeland.  We can tell it's fake.

Charlie Sheen looked like a power pitcher in Major League.  He even admitted to doing steroids while shooting to get his fastball into the mid-80s. The film was edited to look like Rick "Wild Thing" Vaughn was a real flame thrower.  While Tim Robbins was utterly unconvincing as a power pitcher in Bull Durham, at least Nuke LaLoosh is actually throwing the ball.  Kevin Costner was certainly passable as a veteran catcher gunning for the minor league career home run title in Major League AND as an aging pitcher in For Love of the Game.

They had real minor leaguers playing the ball players in the movie.  Teach your actors to play, or at least use editing tricks to fool us.  A digital ball is just cheating.

So, all in all, 42 is not a bad film.  Heavy-handed?  Yes.  Too Hollywood for my taste?  Yes.  But it's entertaining, has a charismatic lead, a very good performance from Harrison Ford, and it tells an important story that everyone should know about.  Without baseball's colour barrier being broken, who knows how much longer the civil rights movement might have taken.  The symbol of baseball as America's game being integrated after World War II, where black soldiers had fought and died for their country, was extremely important to the country's psyche.  And it's about time that a major motion picture told that story to contemporary audiences.


* Start reading about half way through the article: The Essay.

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