There are a lot of reasons to make a movie. Money, art, to tell a story, money, to bring a serious issue to the spotlight, and money are just some of those reasons. Oh, and don’t forget money. So, when I saw that a new movie about Jackie Robinson was coming out, I started to wonder “why now?” This year doesn’t mark any special anniversary of anything related to Jackie Robinson. He was born 94 years ago, he died 41 years ago, he debuted in major league baseball 66 years ago, retired 57 years ago, was inducted into the hall of fame 51 years ago, and Jackie Robinson Day was created by baseball 9 years ago. None of those mark an anniversary ending in five or zero. It’s also really hard to make a case relating to race, considering we’ve seen sixty-six years of integrated baseball and Barack Obama’s been the President of the United States for more than four years. There have even been numerous films and television specials about him, including a biography where he played himself, so it wasn’t like the story hadn’t been told yet. I thought the movie itself might answer the question, but after watching the movie, the question still remained. The only thing I was able to come up with was a flimsy “baseball season just started, sooo…yeah.” My only hope of answering this question now is to go back over the movie and hope that you or I come up with something I haven’t considered yet.
The first thing you should know is that 42 is a decent enough movie. The second thing you should know is that it leaves a lot on the table. For one thing, like the film adaptation of The Help, it doesn’t show enough racism to really get your blood boiling. At most, it makes you a little uncomfortable, mostly due to focusing on a couple of characters or events and strategically placed n-words. Sure, he has to face several players and fans that call him bad names and others that issue vague threats, but it never seems like he has much to overcome. He just has to get a few hits and everything is okay. Considering the movie focuses on his year in the minor leagues and first year in the major leagues, we should have seen (and felt) a lot more vitriol, hatred, and threats.
Not that we didn’t get some of that. The scene in particular that comes the closest to making you throw things at the screen is when Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) stands outside the dugout during a game and says just about the worse stuff you can think of that can be said in a PG-13 movie (actually, that rating alone answers the question as to why this movie is so light on the racism). It’s a powerful sequence that is one of the few times in the movie when Chadwick Boseman (playing Robinson) is allowed to come out of his shell. It’s also the first of two pivotal scenes in the movie’ the other coming during a game at Cincinnati when Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black), the Dodgers shortstop, shows his true colors.
Getting back to the stuff left on the table, the writer/director, Brian Helgeland, missed a lot of opportunities to make scenes feel bigger. The most obvious scene is Jackie’s first game for the Dodgers. When he walks out of the tunnel into Ebbets Field, he appears to be in awe of the size of the stadium and amount of people there. Except, we don’t feel it with him because we don’t get a good, sweeping shot of a stadium filled with people. Instead, we get a couple of token glances at the stands behind Jackie and the empty space behind the outfield wall. Time and again, we should have gotten these shots at multiple stadiums, showing roaring fans yelling and jeering at Jackie, but all we get are a handful of loudmouths condensed into one section. I can’t stress enough how simple it would have been to amp up the tension with a few more extras and wide-angle camera.
In addition to those scenes, some of the characters felt smaller than they should have, especially Jackie’s wife, Rachel (Nicole Beharie). I think she was supposed to come off as Jackie’s support throughout the whole movie, but she was so one-dimensional it was hard to tell if she was actually a real person and not a card-board cutout. I couldn’t tell how she felt about anything, least of all Jackie playing baseball. The most she ever does is encourage him from time to time and pretends as if racism is just a minor nuisance. This did not help the movie build a strong racism narrative, nor a strong support-to-Jackie narrative. It just continued to strengthen the false idea that the situation wasn’t really that bad which contradicts what this movie was supposed to be.
Where I think the movie strayed the most was that it seemed to be more about Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), the Dodgers president and general manager, than about its title subject – Jackie. Incidentally, Ford was the best part of the movie, bringing to life (and light) a person who really isn’t given enough credit for bringing Robinson to the majors and opening the door for the current and future black ball players. Rickey is the father figure to Robinson, dispersing advice and constantly having Jackie’s back.
The final thing that was left on the table, as well as completely out of the movie, was the inclusion of the Dodgers owner. How did he feel about the situation? How much convincing did Rickey have to do? Anything here would have added to narrative and given us insight nobody ever talks about.
As I said, it was a decent enough movie and if you don’t know anything about Jackie Robinson, it’s a good movie to start with. They take very little liberty with historical events and the baseball action itself is believable. Besides Ford’s portrayal of Rickey, the other strength of the movie is in the inclusion of the more well-known events, even down to lines being spoken word for word to what was actually said so many years ago. Having said that, considering how well-documented Jackie’s life has been and that the film really doesn’t offer any new information, I just can’t come up with why this movie was released now. Can you?
Rating: Ask for three dollars back. When they ask why, say: “Exactly.”