Sunday, May 5, 2013

'42' Hits Heart Strings, But Relies Too Heavily on Violin Strings

What 42 inherently has going for it is a truly amazing story of one man whose emergence into baseball proved crucial to the desegregation and eventual racial integration within baseball and other professional sports. Not to be isolated, this one man’s story served as both a beacon of hope and unforgettable example of that seemingly unattainable “what could be.” It is the type of story that powers itself, practically writing itself.

It is likely that director Brian Helgeland didn’t quite believe in that power or underestimated it to the point of needing or wanting compensation. While the movie has a few good moments – mostly powered by good acting – it suffers from relying too overtly on occasionally cheesy scenes and heavy violin strings.

At one point during the cinematic version of Jackie Robinson’s gradual acceptance as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers – by his teammates, fans, the league and the rest of the country – star shortstop Pee Wee Reese tries to show support for Robinson in front of his hometown Kentucky fans when the team travels to play the Cincinnati Reds. As Reese wraps his arm around Robinson, boos gradually become more and more audible. Those boos provide a powerful soundtrack, one that Robinson and just about every African-American baseball player who followed in his footsteps had to hear and deal with throughout their careers. However, the boos are quickly replaced by the loud overpowering of violin strings and music meant to represent the Dodgers’ growing acceptance of their star player.

Although Helgeland’s decision is interesting and makes some sense, it wraps too nice of a bow around what, in the long run, was a really a subtle, gradual win for a person who still had many battles to go before he was accepted. And, more importantly, it underestimates just how powerful it is to see two unlikely comrades sharing a moment in an unlikely and difficult time and place.

Chadwick Boseman, right, is pretty good in 42 as Jackie Robinson. Harrison Ford is OK as not-Harrison Ford.
Whereas some of the soundtrack and script decisions seem a little heavy-handed and unearned, the movie is considerably boosted by solid acting, especially in some of the smaller character roles. Chadwick Boseman does a solid job of portraying the revolutionary Robinson, impressively capturing his transition from confident Negro League player to reluctant icon to baseball hero. He handles the job well enough to make one wonder how much better of a job he would have done had he been given more to do. Nicole Beharie, as Jackie’s wife Rachel, does a similarly fine job. Andre Holland, as baseball writer and Robinson’s guide Wendell Smith, does an excellent job of both painting the edges of the Robinson story and also hosting his own mini-integration story as a journalist not allowed in the press box due to the color of his skin and despite his talent.

The true standouts of this film, though, are Christopher Meloni and Alan Tudyk, who take reasonably small roles and hit them out of the park. As Dodgers manager Leo Durocher, Meloni takes his trademark ability to play angry and develops it into a character hardheaded enough to lead a rowdy baseball team but focused enough to motivate his players to embrace racial integration. He develops this hardheaded into a character so likeable that the audience feels a shot in the gut when Durocher gets suspended for having an affair and, thus, can’t help Robinson in his first year on the Dodgers. Tudyk plays the outspokenly racist Ben Chapman, manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, depicted along with the entire city as among the most bigoted in baseball. Tudyk is a chameleon of voice and personality who takes considerable advantage of his assets here by depicting both the power of the prevailing opinion and shocking realization that this manner of thinking is quickly disintegrating, evident when a fellow Dodger walks over to the Phillies’ bench and tells the manager off. Although the character’s racism is over-the-top, Tudyk’s portrayal is not, showing the audience the worst of the worst while still allowing for believability. Character actors Toby Huss as the scout who signs Robinson and Brett Cullen as the manager of the minor league affiliate Montreal Royals also do impressive jobs.

Alan Tudyk, as racist Phillies manager Ben Chapman, is amazing in this movie, as well as everything he has ever been in.

As Branch Rickey, Harrison Ford walks a line between being believable and becoming a cartoon. Although Ford makes some of his actions and decisions seem forced or misplays some of Rickey’s intentions, the greatest success is that the character is decisively not Harrison Ford-esque, lacking the gruff, bullying undertones usually present in most of his roles.

The movie does a pretty good job of showing his teammates’ gradual acceptance of Robinson, often due to his outstanding play and via various methods, including choosing not to be traded, the aforementioned arm-around-neck gesture by Pee Wee Reese (which may or may not have happened) and, in one instance, inviting him to be part of their post-game shower routine.

The film version of this statue is pretty cheesy.

As a baseball fan, I probably would have liked to see more baseball action, possibly more evidence of the defensive prowess he was known for at just about every position he tried. Even his offense shown was considerably one-sided, really only showing home runs and base stealing ability. This could have possibly been done by making some scenes a little shorter. They could have also cut some of the fat, such as a scene where a child curiously observes Robinson on the field and then mimics his dad’s racist comments; it is, without a doubt, a very interesting snapshot of how racism spread but could easily be sacrificed to show us more about the player. However, it is pretty plain that this movie was not made solely for baseball fans, but for all viewers interested in seeing how Robinson became an iconic identity associated with successful racial integration.