42 (2013)

Untitled-1The last scene of 42 sums up the kind of movie it is. Jackie Robinson has just hit the home run that will send his team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, to the 1947 World Series. Everyone is overjoyed. Fans are cheering, players are running onto the field. It is a great celebration. It is happening in slow motion, and we watch Jackie round the bases, chugging along with the number 42 proudly displayed on his back. He touches home, takes off his cap, and waves to the crowd, the camera getting his best side, still in slow motion. The orchestral soundtrack swells to a climax. He is a hero, not a baseball player. He is a national monument, not a man.

But of course, he is a man. He is a very talented man who just had the misfortune — or the fortune — of being born with dark skin during a time of intense racial segregation. World War II has just ended, and now the Americans are returning their attention to their favourite pastime. We are given a very shocking statistic as the movie opens: There are roughly 400 players in the baseball major league. Out of the 400, 400 are white. These are 400 very happy and contented men, playing the sport they love, uninterrupted by the presence of the black folk. They can provide for their families, and aim for the hall of fame. Oh yes, their lives are perfect.

Enter, Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), the huffing and puffing owner of the Dodgers, who feels it’s time for a change. His great plan: Getting an African American player up to the big leagues. Of course, his subordinates think he’s crazy, but he is level-headed, and he knows that if he wants something, he’s damn sure going to get it. So he scouts, and he discovers Jackie Robinson, a good but temperamental player who’s stuck in the Negro League. First step: Bumping him up to the Minors where his progress can be appropriately monitored. Next: Bumping him up to the Majors where he can really shine. Sounds simply enough, doesn’t it? Life should be so easy.

Jackie is thrown the kitchen sink on his way up the white ladder, from disgruntled teammates, to Ben Chapman (the openly racist manager of the Phillies, played by Alan Tudyk) hurling insult after insult at him from across the pitch. The whole time, we are wondering if, and when, he will lose his temper and charge. He never does. He does, however, teach his poor bat a thing or two down in the corridor. You see, this is his payment for getting a shot at the big leagues. As Branch instructs him earlier in the movie: “I want a player who’s got the guts not to fight back!”. So from start to finish, Jackie keeping his cool is his greatest challenge. The success of his career depends on the success — or failure — of his tolerance. He knows abuse is headed his way. All he has to do is keep himself above it. Do that, and he’s a star.

These are the areas 42 is good at. In one of the movie’s first baseball games, we see a young black boy and his mother cheering Jackie on as he plays for the Montreal Royals. Later, the boy and his friends see Jackie off as he boards a train bound for a brighter future. As the kids run after the departing train, it somehow becomes clear that already, Jackie is a hero for the next generation. And he hasn’t really done anything yet.

Now, I can admit that even though I’m a baseball fan, Jackie’s story has never been familiar to me. In my mind, he is the man who tore apart the colour barrier and brought unity to the game. His number is worn by every player in the Majors on Jackie Robinson Day, and all of the African American players now owe their careers to him. What I didn’t know — and what this movie tells me — is that much of his impact is indebted to Branch Rickey, without whom he wouldn’t even have had the chance to step on the first rung of the ladder. Branch not only gives Jackie the opportunity, he also gives him the courage, support, and assistance. You could even say that Jackie’s success is more Branch’s doing. But the movie isn’t about him. It’s about Jackie being a hero, and director Brian Helgeland makes no attempt to be subtle about it.

He is glorified beyond belief. Exalted as a god among men. Spat on by the hateful, yes, but adored by the entire nation. He is like Captain America, fighting for equality to the sound of glorious orchestral music. Triumphant in the end, and worshipped as an icon. This is all well and good, but what we need to understand is that Jackie Robinson is still just a man. A remarkable man, for sure, but a man nonetheless. He had to work hard to succeed, not just in deflecting racial slurs, but also in the game, which is something the movie sidesteps. If Spielberg can downplay Abraham Lincoln to give us a monument as a man, I don’t see why Helgeland can’t do the same.

Best Moment | Some of Harrison Ford’s lines were pretty awesome. In addition to the one I mentioned above, his speech about God not liking baseball was uber good.

Worst Moment | The scene with the young black boy, Ed Charles, though touching, failed to really bring it home, because the guy playing him wasn’t all that great.

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