The film 42, released nationally this weekend, is a conventional Hollywood biopic in the heroic mold. The film is tightly focused on Jackie Robinson’s epochal 1947 season that broke baseball’s color line. Despite its conventional form, the film is inspiring and distinctive in a number of respects that justify attention.
We went to see the film in a suburban St. Paul theater last night and enjoyed it immensely. After seeing it I wanted to say that 42 is a 10 and leave it at that. It’s an old-fashioned kind of movie that leaves the audience wanting to applaud, as ours did last night. As such, it is not lacking in the flaws that Joe Morganstern picks on in his Wall Street Journal review. But the Times’s frequently acerbic A.O. Scott is more indulgent and, in my view, closer to the mark.
The film is not only old-fashioned in the Hollywood sense. It is old-fashioned in its depiction of the virtues, demonstrating the excellence of character that formed an integral part of Robinson’s triumph. This was a man.
I should hope that the film inspires viewers to turn to the true story of Jackie Robinson in the desire to separate fact from fiction. There are lots of good books about Robinson, of course, but the appropriate companion to the film is probably Jules Tygiel’s Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy.
The film lavishes attention on the famous incident involving Phillies manager Ben Chapman’s racial taunting of Robinson in May 1947. Does the film overdo it? Tygiel quotes Harold Parrott: “At no time in my life have I heard racial venom and dugout abuse to match the abuse that Ben sprayed on Robinson that night. Chapman mentioned everything from from thick lips to the supposedly extra-thick Negro skull…[and] the repulsive sores and diseases he said Robinson’s teammates would become infected with if they touched the towels or the combs he used.” Robinson himself wrote in 1972: “I have to admit that this day of all the unpleasant days of my life brought me nearer to cracking up than I have ever been.” The film simplifies the abuse, but it probably isn’t overstated.
The film also recreates the staging of the incident’s resolution, with Robinson posing for an uncomfortable photograph with Chapman in the service of the higher interests involved. Robinson subsequently commented: “I can think of no occasion where I had more difficulty swallowing my pride and doing what seemed best for baseball than in agreeing to pose for a photograph with a man for whom I had only the lowest regard.”
The film gives almost equal attention to Branch Rickey, played by Harrison Ford. Ford hams it up royally. He provides a striking contrast with Chadwick Boseman, who plays Robinson. Boseman leaves no doubt of the pride and rage that Robinson had to keep under wraps. The New York Times’s Tyler Kepner briefly discusses Boseman’s preparation for the part here.
The script is interesting. It seems to me to have a substantially higher fidelity to character and history than the average biopic. Beyond that, the script manifests Christian elements of the story. Rickey is portrayed as a sincere Methodist, proclaiming “God is a Methodist.” And Robinson himself is something of a Christ-like figure. Eric Metaxas chides the filmmakers for omitting the Christianity of the protagonists, but it is subtly present, or so it seems to me.
In bringing the era of segregation to life, the film awakens profound feelings of pride and shame that are never far from the surface of our racial ordeal. The film shows how wrong it is to treat men differently based on the color of their skin. The film’s morality seems to me to represent another old-fashioned piece of the story that, unfortunately, we have overcome.