Saturday, February 22, 2014

42 (2013)

Director: Brian Helgeland                               Writer: Brian Helgeland
Film Score: Mark Isham                                Cinematography: Don Burgess
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Nicole Baharie and Christopher Meloni

There’s one undeniable fact about Major League Baseball that emerges from Brian Helgeland’s film 42: Jackie Robinson didn’t break the color barrier, Branch Rickey did. That’s not to take anything away from Robinson, who was a gifted baseball player and a hall of famer. The decision, however, was made by Rickey who was the president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers and had both personal and financial reasons for hiring Robinson. Harrison Ford does an exceptional job at playing the general manager. He asked Helgeland to allow him to use extensive makeup in order to disguise himself and the effect is perfect. Harrison is completely subsumed by the character of Rickey and is one of the most important parts of the film’s success. But apparently that’s not enough these days. Because the film was released early in the year it was completely ignored at Oscar nomination time . . . for anything. It’s actually insulting, and in a twist of irony it’s difficult not to see lingering racism as being partly responsible.

The film opens with Branch Rickey making the decision to hire a black ballplayer. Even his staff tells him he shouldn’t do it, but he is bound and determined and begins looking through the files of the best players in the Negro League. He settles on Jackie Robinson, not because he is necessarily the best ballplayer, but because of his aversion to being treated in a racist manner. Of course Robinson is floored by the vote of confidence. But this is where the film becomes a strange sort of buddy picture. While Branch has done his work of hiring Robinson, it is the player who must become the spearhead in the endeavor. He receives everything from disdain from his own minor league coach to outright racist hostility from the coach of the Phillies, and everything in between from fans, opposing players, and his own teammates. The key, Rickey explains, is that he can’t lose his temper, can’t fight back, or the entire experiment will fail. With Rickey’s help, both on and off the field, Robinson succeeds in brilliant fashion, taking his team to the world series and winning the first ever Rookie of the Year award given in baseball.

Chadwick Boseman plays Robinson and does as good a job as one could hope for. One of the difficult aspects of the story for writer-director Brian Helgeland to get across onscreen is the emotional aspect of Robinson’s character when he was necessarily limited in expressing himself. This is where the character of his wife, played brilliantly by Nicole Baharie, comes into play. She acts as the sounding board for his frustration and rage. Boseman talks about his feelings with Baharie, then goes out to play and we can see his feelings beneath the surface without him having to express them. There is one exception, however, during the Phillies game when the taunts of Alan Tudyk become too much and he goes into the tunnel and has a breakdown. Of course, Harrison Ford comes along just in time to remind him of his obligation and he goes out and wins the game.

What really raises the film above the average is not only the excellence of the principals but the equally talented supporting cast. Brett Cullen is wonderful as the minor league coach who suddenly snaps out of his racist haze when Ford tells him he’ll be fired if he doesn’t. John C. McGinley is terrific as the understated Dodger radio announcer Red Barber, and Andre Holland is solid as the black reporter Wendell Smith who was hired by Ford to watch out for Boseman and write about him from the inside. But by far the best supporting role is played by Chris Meloni as Leo Durocher who is so focused on women and baseball that he, literally, seems not to notice much less care about skin color. It’s a great performance for the former Law and Order: SVU star and one hopes that he gets bigger film roles down the line. As a story it’s one we’re all familiar with and so there’s not a lot of drama here, but Helgeland makes the most of it and does an admirable job telling the story. 42 is an inspirational look at a baseball legend that does well by its subject and deserves a lot more recognition that it received.

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