Combustible Celluloid
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With: Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Nicole Beharie, Christopher Meloni, Ryan Merriman, Lucas Black, Andre Holland, Alan Tudyk, Hamish Linklater, T.R. Knight, John C. McGinley, Toby Huss, Max Gail, Brad Beyer, James Pickens Jr.
Written by: Brian Helgeland
Directed by: Brian Helgeland
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements including language
Running Time: 128
Date: 04/12/2013

42 (2013)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Hit That Ball

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

What is it about baseball? Early in Brian Helgeland's movie 42, a narrator explains that baseball is proof of democracy. The scoreboard shows exactly how each ballplayer played, no more, no less. But it's more than that, isn't it? For whatever reason, baseball inspires incredible feelings of passion, adoration, longing; it inspires poetry.

That's why baseball movies are allowed to be so goopy and sentimental, ranging from The Natural (1984) to Field of Dreams (1989) and now 42. Although, in truth, no baseball story deserves to be treated with quite as much over-the-top reverence and awe as this one does.

The Jackie Robinson story was filmed once before, in 1950, for the big screen, with the title The Jackie Robinson Story. Astoundingly, Jackie Robinson played himself, with Ruby Dee as his wife Rae. However, despite the novelty of it, it was a low-budget affair, affording only 76 minutes to its amazing story, and never really reaching the depth it needed.

The new movie turns Jackie into a larger-than-life legend, and there's nothing wrong with that. In case you didn't know, Robinson was the first black ballplayer to enter the major leagues, in 1947. The impact of this was huge. He took the brunt of a great deal of hatred and prejudice, and was the subject of just as much adoration and hero worship. It must have been a heavy load, but Robinson never cracked. He broke a racial barrier for good.

Behind the scenes, Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, gets credit for finding and signing Robinson. Ford steals most of the movie with his rumbling drawl and paunchy carriage, a half-smoked cigar forever perched in his hand (and still slipping in his trademark sideways smile from time to time). Helgeland keeps Rickey's motives for signing Robinson a slippery subject. Sometimes it's about money, and sometimes it's about trying to do some good in the world.

Sadly, Rickey is the only real memorable character here. It's as hard to write and cast Jackie Robinson as it is to write and cast Superman. He's an honest-to-goodness hero, and whatever struggles and doubts he has are all tied up in his duty to mankind. He'll always come across as slightly two-dimensional; viewers can never fully relate to him. Fortunately, he's still fascinating and mesmerizing, and actor Chadwick Boseman does justice to the role. Boseman clearly studied the real McCoy and incorporates many of Robinson's trademark moves, especially his dynamic base-stealing.

Helgeland populates the rest of his movie with crucial characters, but they never seem to get much time; there's not a lot of credit for the people in the background, the ones that take care of legends. Nicole Beharie plays Rae (or "Rachel"), with one or two moments to show how feisty she is, but mostly she just watches the games and frets. Andre Holland plays Wendell Smith, the black baseball journalist whose main job was to follow and chronicle Robinson's life and exploits. Smith might have been, if nothing else, a good narrative device, but again, Helgeland only gives him a few moments to express himself. Otherwise, he just watches games and types.

Thankfully, Helgeland's treatment of the games is very exciting, shot and edited for high fluidity and precision. If I'm not mistaken, there was even a quick shot that showed Robinson sliding into base, photographed from beneath the base (the dirt flies over the lens and ends the shot).

The games themselves are given dramatic heft by the racial tension. Robinson's teammates, including Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black) and Ralph Branca (Hamish Linklater), slowly begin to find ways to bond with him, while the opposition, embodied by Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk), shows just how cruel and vicious Robinson's enemies could be. One crucial moment in the stands shows a young boy beginning to chant the "N" word, simply because the adults around him are doing the same (this is how it spreads).

Helgeland is, of course, an Oscar-winner for his L.A. Confidential screenplay, and his handling of period detail and dialogue is first-rate. It can't be argued that 42 reaches the depth and complexity of that former work, and certainly there could be arguments that a white filmmaker could be missing out on some of the insider aspects of this story. But what Helgeland does give us is a wonderful, huge, glossy, mythical portrait of America's growing pains. 42 proves that, more so than needing heroes, we need people to realize that heroes are needed.

Warner Home Video has released a Blu-ray of excellent sound and picture quality, though the extras are fairly skimpy. There are only three short featurettes, made up mostly of clips from the movie and press-kit interviews with the cast and crew. Home run king Hank Aaron is interviewed in the third one, though, telling stories of the real Robinson. Surely, the public domain Jackie Robinson Story could have been included here, or at least a short documentary with some vintage Robinson footage? The set comes with a DVD and a digital copy.

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