A Very Good Movie Could Be Made About: The end of the color line. Actually the movie—The Jackie Robinson Story, with Jackie playing himself—was made in 1950. Someone should try again.
—The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, 2001
It took 63 years, but someone tried again. The movie, 42, debuted in theaters this weekend, the work of writer-director Brian Helgeland. Readers here at THT are an obvious audience for the film and probably would be going regardless of what any one reviewer wrote here, as long as the film wasn’t a strikeout. It certainly isn’t, but whether you find the movie very good or merely good could depend on how well you know the story—and ignorance might not be bliss.
42 starts with Branch Rickey‘s original broaching of his Great Experiment and carries us through Robinson’s rookie season with the Brooklyn Dodgers. It hits almost every point we would expect along that route, some of them plenty uncomfortable, surprisingly few overly forced. Hollywood can be as subtle as the Chelyabinsk meteorite sometimes, but Helgeland shows a generally steady hand in the portrayals of racial opposition, and outright hatred, toward Robinson.
(I’d note one moment in particular, but I’ll let that kick you in the gut the way it did me. When you hear the name “Honus Wagner“, be ready.)
The acting is solid all the way through. Chadwick Boseman’s Robinson may not be a breakout performance, but he grounds the man in self-respect while showing glints of the harder-edged man that the screenplay does soft-pedal. He and Nicole Beharie as Rachel Robinson make a good screen couple, portraying a deep, mellowed, sincere love rather than sparking passion.
If there’s a standout, it’s Harrison Ford, who really got into the role of Rickey. His voice all gravel and cigar smoke, wild eyebrows arching across his forehead, he puts his all into making you forget he was ever Han Solo—and if you close your eyes, you can just about do it. (I fear, though, that watching him in Star Wars: Episode VII in two years will have a similar effect.)
Special mention goes to two other actors. John C. McGinley gives us a delightfully idiosyncratic Red Barber, his commentary providing some of the humor that Helgeland sprinkles in to break the tension. For you fans of Firefly, there’s Alan Tudyk, whose performance as the race-baiting manager Ben Chapman may make you forget how much you loved Wash.
The era is portrayed convincingly. You’re going to love seeing Ebbets Field, the Polo Grounds, Forbes Field, and other bygone ballparks in living color and pretty good CGI. Rickwood Field in Birmingham does multiple duty, including as itself in a Monarchs game. The only anachronism I noticed was an “African-American” four decades out of date, but maybe someone else has sharper ears or eyes.
Now, the trouble with a story that offers you such an easy, by-the-numbers arc is that you may take that easy route. Helgeland does that sometimes. Giving Robinson rough spots as a person might endanger him as an icon, even though it strengthened him as a character.
Robinson is shown struggling with Rickey’s injunction against fighting back by the sheer vituperation of the abuse he takes and not by the power of his own combativeness. He’s fighting them, not himself, and fighting yourself is usually more interesting. We get tastes of his combativeness in early scenes with the Kansas City Monarchs and Montreal Royals, but it’s not really enough.
And there is one scene that really misses the mark, the scene that could have made the movie. Robinson finally drags out of Rickey the personal motivation he had for bringing Robinson into the major leagues. Many of you know this one: another black player, whom Rickey was coaching in college ball when he was much younger, had endured his first full introduction to the segregationist mindset. Rickey finds the young man later, crying, plucking at his hands, wishing he could tear the black skin off and be like everybody else.
It’s shocking. It’s affecting. And it’s watered down to, “I didn’t help a black fellow enough when I should have, and this is how I redeem my failure.” This is a dreadful misstep, and it’s hard to believe anyone who knew the story well enough to edit it down to this wet pop could have done so. I feel for Ford: this was pure, shining Oscar bait, and he had it snatched away.
The causal viewer won’t feel the loss as keenly, though the scene is still vague enough on its own to be unsatisfying. There are other divergences that could discomfort the experts, among which I’m told I must now count myself, having done two THT articles on Robinson. You can skip if you like, though we are supposed to revel in the details. Maybe one has to expect such stuff when Hollywood puts up on screen the words it has made ominous: “based on a true story.”
Helgeland did do some homework on Robinson’s games in 1947, and he generally tried to be accurate. Right on the money are Jackie’s first homer and first stolen base, including the wild throw that lets him take third. He specifically sought out Fritz Ostermueller, a Pirates pitcher who brained Robinson with a pitch early in the season then got his comeuppance surrendering a home run to Robinson in September that clinched the pennant for Brooklyn.
At least, it did in the movies. In real life, Robinson’s tater off Fritz made it 1-0 Bums in the fourth inning, not exactly justifying Red’s call that “barring a miracle comeback,” Brooklyn had the pennant, especially since Brooklyn didn’t clinch that day, either. But it’s “based on” them clinching five days later.
Helgeland used that diptych with Ostermueller to provide something of a climax for the movie, both in baseball terms and in triumphing over the racists. Maybe he should have gone with something else for Jackie’s rematch with Fritz. Maybe like June 24. 1947.
Ostermueller was throwing at Jackie’s head again that day, missing this time. With the score tied in the fifth, Robinson was on third, and Dixie Walker, one of Robinson’s antagonists on his own team, was at the plate, perhaps contemplating being unhelpful toward scoring the interloper. Carl Furillo stole second behind Jackie. Jackie then did Carl one better. He stole home on Ostermueller, the first plate theft of his major league career.
Stealing home to score the go-ahead run against the pitcher who effectively tried to kill you, at the feet of a teammate who wishes you had never put on the uniform? Not Hollywood enough? Too bad. I almost have the thing storyboarded in my own head.
The one real statistical howler is when Red Barber is shown saying, in September, that Robinson has “yet to be thrown out attempting” a steal. I see what happened here. Helgeland took the zeroed-out caught-stealing column in the incomplete stats for 1947 and actually thought Robinson hadn’t been caught. (He was, 11 times.) I give Helgeland points for trying for accuracy, but next time maybe he could consult a little more closely with one of us sabermetricians. We come cheap!
In all, 42 is a worthwhile if not fully satisfying effort. Maybe it can be done better, but unless you’re willing to wait another 63 years, take what they’re giving us. Three baseballs (out of four).