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Review: 42 is Worth Watching, but Don't Expect a Nuanced Look at the Jackie Robinson Story

Warning: there are spoilers... but it's not like you don't know the story already.


When walking in to see 42, it's important to keep in mind the nature of the film: it's not a documentary, it's a dramatization. The movie is based on real events, it is not meant to depict what actually happened. 42 tells the story of Jackie Robinson breaking the "colour barrier" in Major League Baseball in a very Hollywood fashion. You should go see it, but it sticks too closely to a grand narrative for any nuance in the Jackie Robinson story to be explored.

The movie begins with a short clip of professional ballplayers coming home from serving in World War II--white ex-soldiers returning to the major leagues while black ex-soldiers headed off to the Negro leagues. We first meet Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) as a member of the Negro league Kansas City Monarchs. The Monarchs' bus stopped at a white-owned gas station, and while the operator was glad to fuel up the vehicle, he refused to allow Robinson to go into the bathroom. After Robinson threatened to go elsewhere for gas, the operator reluctantly let him use the facilities.

His strong play at the plate and on defense as the Monarchs' shortstop, along with his experience playing with white players at UCLA attracted the attention of Brooklyn Dodgers president and general manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), who was looking for an untapped source of cheap talent to bring the Dodgers back into contention. Rickey signed Robinson to a minor league contract, and an elated Robinson phoned Rachel--whom he affectionately calls "Rae"--and proposed over the telephone.

Flashing forward to to the spring of 1946, the Robinsons were in transit in the New Orleans airport when the new Mrs. Robinson saw a "Whites Only" sign on top of a ladies' bathroom for the first time (she hailed from California). She walks right in, leading the white airline gate worker to deny the Robinsons a seat on the plane, claiming that the plane would be "too heavy" to fly safely with them on board.

Normally, I would have criticized the two "bathroom" scenes as too contrived, but indeed real-life history does record their happening and the Robinsons' defiance against racism.

Many other scenes of Jackie Robinson providing key hits and succeeding at key plays on the field after being taunted by epithets may also have been "real", but it seemed that the film was unable to include characters that weren't either a racist redneck, an enlightened white, or a supporting black.

One of the biggest problem I had with the depiction of the various characters involved in the story is the treatment of blacks. Jackie Robinson was built as a morally pure saint (there was only one, albeit key, moment in the film when Robinson almost let his rage get the better of him), Rachel Robinson was his supporting wife that barely contributed to the movie, Pittsburgh Courier writer Wendell Smith (Andre Holland) followed the Robinsons around and was just one of the many reverential blacks in the movie. For a movie about racism, the makers were much too careful about casting any of the black characters in a bad light, and that resulted in very one-dimensional characters and some saccharine-sweet scenes that doesn't do the subject of racism any justice.

While the movie showed many scenes of Robinson stepping up and helping his team win despite being harassed by everyone in the stadium, there weren't any scenes that showed him as human. Robinson hit .297 in his rookie year, which means that seven out of ten times he would have gotten out, and there were most likely times where he failed in high leverage game situations. In those situations, how did Brooklyn fans react? How did fans on the road react? How about his teammates? How about Rachel?

The final scene of the movie was also very strange (spoiler alert). The Dodgers needed to beat the hated Pirates in Pittsburgh to clinch the National League title, and on the mound for Pittsburgh was Fritz Ostermueller (Linc Hand) who had beaned Robinson earlier in the season. Robinson stepped up against his foe with the game timed 0-0 and hit a solo homer off him. In real life, Robinson did actually hit it, but it was in the top of the fourth inning. However, in 42, that homer was treated as a game-winning shot, with Robinson slowly trotting around the bases before turning around and tipping his cap to an applauding crowd. Great drama, but did the filmmakers expect the audience to overlook that the game was played at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh? I mean, they even showed Branch Rickey listening to the game on radio while walking around an empty Ebbets Field back in Brooklyn.

Speaking of radio, John C. McGinley did a fantastic job as Dodgers radio broadcaster Red Barber. His use of Barber's colourful metaphors added a lot of enjoyment to the film and was probably the best surprise of the movie. Chadwick Boseman did well playing Robinson in spite of how the writers created the character. Harrison Ford was insufferable as Branch Rickey in the early parts of the movie, obviously overacting and overdoing Rickey's sandpaper-rough voice and mannerisms. Fortunately, Ford improves as the movie (and the season) goes on, and he had two particularly good scenes Boseman, one in the dugout tunnel and one in the trainer's room. As painful as it was for me to see "Wash" from Firefly, Alan Tudyk, throw out racist taunts as the nasty Phillies manager Ben Chapman, he also plays the character very, very well. In one of my favourite scenes, Chapman was ordered by the Phillies brass to make amends with Robinson, and the two posed for the now-famous PR photo. Robinson told Chapman before the photo, "how 'bout a bat so we don't have to touch skin?"

Christopher Meloni depicted manager Leo Durocher with some zest and managed to not overact in the "kitchen scene". Max Gail had far too few scenes as the affable replacement manager Burt Shotton after Durocher was suspended for having an extramarital affair (in real life Durocher was suspended for gambling). Shotton walked into the Dodgers locker room and made one of the least inspiring speeches by a coach to his team in a very entertaining scene.

Overall, the movie was enjoyable because it did have quite a few laugh-out-loud lines and because it told a story that surprisingly few people know. However, it does suffer from Hollywood's tendency to oversimplify and oversweeten characters and stories to better fit into the greater narrative (like skipping over Robinson's entire tenure in Montreal, a brief period that you should learn more about via the Canadian Baseball Network). A word of warning to parents who are looking to take their kids to the movie: it does have language that Hugo's mom would not appreciate of, but I think it could act as a good teaching moment about the power of words.

It is worth two hours of your life and the $12 to go out and see it, but don't expect a great baseball movie destined to be a classic.

Minor Leaguer's Rating: 3 baseballs out of 5.