Movie review / '42: The Jackie Robinson Story' shows the pain that went with his triumphs
April 12, 2013 12:00 PM
Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson in "42: The Jackie Robinson Story."
By Barbara Vancheri Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In some ways, "42: The Jackie Robinson Story" is as old-fashioned as they come.
In the mid-1940s, an African-American boy at a baseball game puts his hands together in prayer and beseeches, "Please, God, let Jackie show we can do it." Later, he and his pint-size pals race alongside the train carrying Jackie Robinson away and when it passes from sight, he lays his ear to the track so he can still hear him.
In other ways, such as the dramatization of Phillies manager Ben Chapman hurling the N-word at Robinson during a game, it doesn't shrink from the ugliness. It's as if Chapman has his finger on the trigger of an automatic weapon and he blithely fires the word again and again and again.
Sports 'n 'at: What Jackie Robinson did for baseball
This week on "Sports 'n 'at," Bob Dvorchak talks about what Jackie Robinson did for baseball and Pittsburgh's own struggles with breaking the color barrier. (Video by Melissa Tkach ; 4/12/2013)
Robinson once said that day "brought me nearer to cracking up than I ever had been."
But he could not crack up or fight back or show the blows delivered by the racial epithets. That was the bargain he struck with Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers general manager who brought him aboard the minor league Montreal Royals and then the Dodgers.
"I want a player who's got the guts not to fight back," Rickey says in the drama, punching the air with his cigar. "People are not gonna like this," he predicts of an African-American breaking the league's color barrier.
"42" shows Rickey (Harrison Ford) was absolutely right and some of those people were the teammates of Robinson (Chadwick Boseman), who made his big-league debut as a Brooklyn Dodger on April 15, 1947.
But talent, temperament and time were on Robinson's side, and when No. 42 retired in early 1957, he had a career batting average of .311.
Although Robinson likes to reassure people, "God built me to last," writer-director Brian Helgeland smartly concentrates on 1945-47 and the earliest days of what Rickey called the "noble experiment."
Younger moviegoers may know nothing or little about the trailblazer, and even middle-aged ones might realize Robinson's place in history but not the cost exacted. As the title of Robinson's autobiography proclaimed: "I Never Had It Made."
When Robinson's California-born wife, Rachel (Nicole Beharie), defies the "White Only" sign on a ladies room door, a New Orleans airport employee gives away the couple's seats. On another day, Robinson is awakened in the middle of the night and hurried into a car and away from a gathering mob. And a file folder grows fat with hate letters and handwritten death threats.
"42" dramatizes the opposition and thaw the first baseman (and later second baseman) experienced in the locker room and field. Small but defining moments -- a teammate slinging an arm around Robinson's shoulder for the crowd to see, another finally challenging the Phillies manager, and even an innocent but oh-so-awkward invitation to shower with his teammates -- turn into milestones.
As with "The Stratton Story" or "The Pride of the Yankees," "42" is also a love story. Rachel, or Rae as she's also known, provides unfailing support for her husband, whether in Pasadena, at Ebbets Field or in a tiny Brooklyn apartment shared with their infant son, where laundry is strung from wall to wall.
The drama casts Rickey and Robinson in a heroic light in a story clearly meant to inspire, celebrate a pioneer and jog our collective or selective memory.
As in any movie such as this, the first hurdle is casting actors who look enough like their real-life counterparts so moviegoers won't be distracted.
Mr. Boseman, who started in the theater before playing football great Floyd Little in "The Express," has an athlete's physique. He looks at home stepping off the bag, fluttering his fingers and going into a crouch as he prepares to steal a base. Playing a saintly character who has to turn the other cheek can be no fun for an actor, but Mr. Boseman gets a chance to show his anguish in the most searing -- and necessary -- scene of the film.
Meanwhile, Rickey was more apple-shaped than Mr. Ford, but he has the thick dark hair, eyeglasses and, as Jimmy Breslin wrote, eyebrows jutting "like rocky ledges, like something from an old photo of John L. Lewis." Mr. Ford seems invigorated by the role and turns in one of his freshest, finest performances in years.
The supporting cast also includes Christopher Meloni as Leo Durocher, Lucas Black as Pee Wee Reese, Hamish Linklater as Ralph Branca and Ryan Merriman as Dixie Walker.
Pittsburghers will be dismayed and delighted by "42."
The city is used as a punch line -- players are stricken when told they're being traded to Pittsburgh! -- but Forbes Field lives again and with no sign of sooty skies. The African-American sports writer chronicling Robinson is Wendell Smith (Andre Holland) from the nationally circulated Pittsburgh Courier.
A key scene in the movie shows Pirates pitcher Fritz Ostermueller (wearing No. 21 before it was immortalized by Roberto Clemente) throwing at Robinson's head and connecting.
A Robinson biography and other accounts report Ostermueller almost beaned the hitter with a rising fastball but Robinson threw up an arm to protect his head and was struck in the arm. He ended up in the dirt writhing in pain, down but not out, the story of his career and his life.