Monday, August 26, 2013

A Man Alone: A review of 42 – The Jackie Robinson Story

42 A man alone

I once asked Pop Mannion, a Dodger fan since he was a kid, his affections and loyalty having gone West wit' dem Bums to L.A., if he remembered if it took fans a while to warm up to Jackie Robinson.

Pop, who was fifteen in 1947, said he didn't know how it was in Brooklyn---judging by the cheers of the crowds on the radio, he'd guess not long---but what he remembers is that among Dodger fans he knew in his hometown, Troy, New York, where they were outnumbered and beleaguered by Yankee fans with more to brag about and root for, there was an excitement of a kind they weren't used to. Robinson was helping the Dodgers do something they hadn't done a lot of in their history.


As Pop recalls it, because of that, long-suffering fans felt about Robinson the way Brooklyn manager Leo Durocher says he does in the movie 42. They didn't care if he was black, white, or zebra-striped. As long as he helped take the Dodgers to the World Series, he was their guy.

And it wasn't as though Robinson's arrival was a surprise. Fans had followed his progress with the Dodgers' Montreal farm club. They saw him coming and couldn't wait for him to get there.

That anticipation and excitement aren't shown or felt in 42.

For all we see of Ebbets Field on game days, the Dodgers might have spent the whole of the Forty-seven season on the road, playing only before the most hostile crowds.

There are some other things missing I'd hoped to see.

A flashback to the young Branch Rickey as a college baseball coach comforting one of his players who'd been humiliated in public because he was black.

A scene in Montreal of Robinson chased down a street by a crowd of white people Robinson assumed were after him for the same reason a crowd of whites might have come after him in the U.S. but who turned out to be clamoring for his autograph.

Hilda Chester and the Brooklyn Sym-Phony.

42 - The Jackie Robinson Story is an excellent biopic, getting at essential truths of the true story it's based on without too much embellishment and while avoiding sentimentality and underplaying the moments that are too good to be true. It doesn't take too much for granted but resists overburdening itself with exposition. It's hokey in spots, contrived in others. You don't come away thinking, If that's not the way it happened, it's the way it should have happened. More like, if it didn't happen exactly like that, it's close enough.

Though I missed those things I said are missing, their absence don't make it a lesser movie. It makes it a weaker baseball movie.  The rhythm of that pennant-winning season isn't part of the rhythm of the film. We get to see individual plays and at bats but get no sense of whole games being played. And we don't really get to see and appreciate Robinson as a baseball player.  It's as if we're meant to take his greatness as a player for granted and not think about how the game was his passion and profession.

We don't see him playing to win.

We see him playing to show them.

Every time he steps up to the plate, whenever he's  in the field or on base, it's a confrontation, a showdown between Jackie Robinson and racism.

And there's some truth in that. Every moment on the field was a moment when he might have failed.

But there'd have been as much truth and more fun in it, if we'd seen him taking an extra base now and then just because he saw the chance and not to prove a point.

I understand , though, why some of what I was rooting to see was left out.  Director and screenwriter Brian Helgeland didn't want to give white audiences an excuse to think that if they'd been alive and in the stands back then they'd have automatically rooted for Robinson or to say, If he had that much support from white fans, and most of his teammates liked him, and lots of players on opposing teams accepted him, how bad could it have really have been for him?

(Think of Republicans, who did not vote for him, insisting racism must be a thing of the past because we have a black President, as if Barack Obama was elected and re-elected unanimously.)

But 42 doesn't dwell on showing crowds of black fans coming out to cheer for Robinson either.

This is thematic. 42 emphasizes a possibly unappreciated aspect of his story, how alone he was.

It didn't matter how many people, black, white, or zebra-striped were rooting for him. They couldn't go out on the field and play for him.  They couldn't be him in confrontations with racist hotel managers, airline ticket agents, local cops, waiters, opposing teams' players and managers, members of his own team, umpires. They could not hold his temper for him. They could not swallow his pride.  Everything, everything!, depended on Robinson's success on the field and his behavior in public.  Which is to say everything depended on what he could only do by himself.

He had to be better than good for his own sake, for his family's sake, for his teammates', for the sake of all the black ballplayers hoping to make it to the majors behind him, for the Brooklyn fans, for everybody who showed faith in him, for all black Americans, for all Americans, black, white, and zebra-striped, for that matter. (Another theme of 42 is that while Robinson's struggles were inspiring they were also redemptive for many people.) That's a lot of people to be carrying on your back when you're reaching far to your right for a hard-hit ground ball or taking a long lead as you're getting ready to steal a base.

42 Robinson at  bat As Robinson, Chadwick Boseman is heart-breaking in conveying that sense of aloneness and the what must have often felt unbearable loneliness that would have gone with it.  I have some vague memories from my kidhood of the white-haired Civil Rights leader Jackie Robinson became, but I only know him as a player from film clips so I can't say with any certainty how close Boseman comes to capturing the real man. Rachel Robinson seems impressed enough. But Boseman isn't built like Robinson---Robinson looked and ran like what he was, a former star running back at UCLA---so he can't quite match that sense of dangerous abandon on the basepaths.  Imagine what it was like to be a shortstop of the time, who tended to be puny and anemic, and looking up to take the throw from the second baseman on what is now not going to be a routine 4-6-3 double play seeing Robinson coming at you as though you are all that stands between him and a touchdown.  Boseman doesn't fly, he sprints like an athletic actor who might have run track in high school.

Robinson's voice was high and piercing and he spoke fast with the volume turned up. Boseman speaks low and slow. No one would describe his Robinson as the real Robinson's teammate Don Newcombe once described him in an argument as not just wrong but " loud wrong." And the thoughtful look in his eyes is that of someone who sees obstacles ahead as problems he's quietly worrying his way toward solving, while the brilliant glint in Robinson's eyes was that of a man who sees obstacles as challenges to be met head on, at top speed, and at full force.  And if, as the great sportswriter Roger Kahn said of him, Robinson burned with a dark fire, Boseman smolders.

But impersonation isn't required. Boseman plays Robinson as what he was in essence, a proud and talented man called upon to be two things he would rather not have had to be, a hero and a saint, and one thing he was but only more so, a great ballplayer. Boseman captures the pressure and the frustration and the strength, but he also conveys the natural human fragility. He's strong enough that we believe he'll stand up to it all, but we can see how he might break.

Boseman also shows us something else important about Robinson, that he was a man deeply in love with his wife. In showing that, though, he gets a lot of help from Nicole Beharie.

42 is as much a story of a happy marriage as it is a baseball tale and a history lesson.

As Rachel Robinson, Beharie gives what I hope will be a star-making performance. She’s smart, she’s independent, she’s got a strong will of her own, every bit a match for her husband. They’re equal partners and quietly passionate lovers. Together they make monogamy look very, very sexy.

As Branch Rickey, Harrison Ford might surprise a lot of people. His performance might even strike them as a revelation.  But when you think about it, Ford has been playing character roles all career long. Han Solo and Indiana Jones are not typical action-adventure heroes. There's a fundamental insecurity Ford gives both, an almost neurotic self-doubt behind Han's bravado and Indy's guilt that mark them as thinking men---"I don't know. I'm making this up as I go."---and they are articulate. They know what they're saying. They're self-aware. Ford is always playing smart. This time out, he can really let the smartness show.

42 Rickey the con manAnd it's not the case that it's time for him to play the grumpy old coot or wise elder. It happens that this character is in his sixties. But don't be fooled by the glasses and the dentures and the wig. They make him look like Branch Rickey. But he's still recognizably playing a Harrison Ford specialty. His Rickey is roguish and conniving, a conman and a liar in a good cause when the situation calls for it. Boseman gives 42 its heart. Ford gives it a sense of fun.

(Just for kicks, take a look at this picture of the real Branch Rickey as a young man. Still think having Harrison Ford play him was a stretch?)

That incident from Rickey’s past I’d hoped to see in the movie as a flashback gets in there in a confession Rickey makes to Robinson. Ford delivers the lines as an awkward and embarrassed apology. Back then, he tells Robinson, he knew what his player was going through was wrong but he didn’t have the courage to do something about it. Now he’s placing yet another burden on Robinson’s shoulders by looking to him to redeem his moral failure of thirty years before.

42 doesn't go out of its way to congratulate its white characters, like Dodger coach and scout Clyde Sukeforth and pitcher Ralph Branca, who treat Robinson decently. It's more interested in manager Leo Durocher's romantic misadventures with movie star Larraine Day, which got him suspended by Baseball Commissioner Happy Chandler just before the Forty-seven season started, than in Durocher's championing of Robinson, although it does give Chris Meloni, who is excellent as Durocher, one powerful scene in which he puts the kibosh on a players mutiny being organized by some of the Southerners on the team led by Dixie Walker who think the Dodgers management would rather keep them than let Robinson play. 42 isn't one of those well-meaning but inadvertently insulting movies that portray episodes from the Civil Rights movement as cases of brave and kindly white people coming to the rescue of noble but powerless on their own black folk.

Instead, what we see more of is Robinson's morally uplifting effect upon some whites, starting with a few of his teammates.  This includes Dodger shortstop Pee Wee Reese.

The famous moment at Cincinnati's Crosley Field when Reese, a Southerner from Kentucky playing before what was for him something of a hometown crowd---Kentucky lying just across the Ohio River---silenced the boobirds by putting his arm over Robinson's shoulders, a gesture that legend has it earned Reese his plaque in the Hall of Fame, is presented as Robinson doing the white guy the favor.

Despite how it might look from a distance, Reese (affably played by Lucas Black) assures Robinson, what's really happening is that he's thanking Robinson for giving him the courage to decide between what he knows to be right and attitudes he was taught growing up. You made a better man of me, is his essential point.

But, to make sure we don't get too sentimental and make too much of the moment's effect, at the same time Reese and Robinson are having their conversation on the field, up in the stands a white Cincinatti fan is instructing his young son on how to hate the black man Robinson. The boy takes the lesson immediately to heart and enthusiastically joins in on the boos and the jeers. But when he sees his hero Reese put his arm around Robinson, he looks stricken, baffled, and sick to his stomach. Suddenly he's struggling with a choice similiar to Reese's. He has to choose between his father and what he's just been shown is right.  His dilemma isn't resolved when the scene ends and we're left to wonder which way he'll choose.

Given the time and place and what we know is coming over the next twenty years and a son's natural instinct to take after his father, it's unlikely he'll choose well. It's frighteningly easy to imagine this cute little boy as a young man dumping milk shakes over the heads of people sitting in at lunch counters and screaming at children on their way to school.

One brave man has only so much redemptive power.

42 is an inspiring film but not a triumphant one. It doesn't reward Robinson with the comforting knowledge he has saved anybody or anything but himself and his baseball career---and that's only for now. There's still a lot to be done and a lot of troubled water ahead. In the end, it leaves him and Rachel only a liitle less alone than when we met them.

Robinson may have been a man alone, but Boseman sure isn’t an actor alone. Along with Beharie and Ford, he gets strong support from Andre Holland as sportswriter Wendell Smith. Smith was the sports editor for the Pittsburgh Courier and later became the first African American member of the Baseball Writers Association of America but at the time he was writing his stories in the stands with his typewriter on his knees because he wasn’t welcome in the press box. The Courier sent Smith on the road with Robinson. In the movie he acts as Robinson’s press agent and advance man but also as his conscience. Howard is by turns amusing and affecting as a basically nervous and introverted intellectual inspired by Robinson to find the courage to stand up to…Robinson and push his hero to be even more heroic.

Chris Meloni has a grand time as Leo the Lip Durocher. The script gives him some of the best lines, after Ford’s, and two scenes of him on the phone to Rickey are two of the funniest in the movie. Max Gail has a sly cameo as the easy to underestimate Burt Shotten who replaced Durocher as manager after Durocher’s suspension. T.R. Knight is a hoot as Harold Parrott, Rickey’s timid, bottom line-watching, bean-counting assistant who develops what Rickey calls “sympathy” for Robinson but which looks like an irresistible urge to start going around punching racists in the snoot. Alan Tudyk is delightfully despicable as the racist whose snoot Parrott wants to punch first and hardest, Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman, a shameless insult artist who taunts Robinson in the vilest ways from the safety of his dugout in one of the film’s necessarily ugly but most powerful scenes.

42 – The Jackie Robinson Story, written and directed by Brian Helgeland. Starring Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Nicole Beharie, Andre Holland, Chris Meloni, Lucas Black, T.R. Knight, and Alan Tudyk. Rated PG-13. 128 minutes. Now available on DVD and to watch instantly at Amazon.



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