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42: Jackie at the Bat

by admin April 12, 2013 8:22 am
42: Jackie at the Bat

It's not fair to spend an entire movie comparing it to another film on the same subject that was never actually made. But as I sat there watching the new Jackie Robinson biopic 42, I couldn't help measuring it against the version of the Robinson story that Spike Lee and Denzel Washington spent years trying to get off the ground before they were relieved by writer/director Brian Helgeland. Knowing Lee's penchant for provocation, his Jackie Robinson movie almost certainly would have been more confrontational -- and less commercial -- than the studio funding it would have liked. And, to be honest, there's no guarantee that it would have succeeded artistically; after all, as terrific a talent as Lee is, his stats are inconsistent with big wins like Do the Right Thing and He Got Game sitting alongside such heartbreaking losses as She Hate Me and Summer of Sam. But, win or lose, Lee's 42 would almost certainly have been more interesting than Helgeland's 42, which takes a crucial piece of sports and social history and treats it with kid gloves, substituting Hollywood gloss for real-world grit.

In Helgeland's defense, this approach isn't entirely without merit. After all, as Robinson and his remarkable achievements as major league baseball's first African-American player fade steadily into the distant past -- consigned to history books and museum exhibits -- a handsomely-mounted, studio-backed mainstream movie has the power to bring his story (or, at least, the broad strokes of it) back to vibrant life, particularly for younger viewers who may only recognize the name "Jackie Robinson" from their Social Studies textbooks. And 42, which spans a roughly two-year period from 1946 to 1948, has absolutely been made with young viewers in mind. Although the movie is rated PG-13, it has very little in the way of objectionable content: there's no profanity (apart from, obviously, a certain N-word), no gruesome violence and absolutely no sex. Even the horrific racism that Robinson (played here by Chadwick Boseman) endured as the first black ballplayer to crack the sport's color barrier is depicted in a relatively restrained manner. I wouldn't go so far as to call it a whitewashing of history, since kids will absolutely come away from the movie understanding just how painful and ugly Robinson's treatment was. At the same time, though, it's kind of strange that Quentin Tarantino's hyper-stylized, Spaghetti Westernized depiction of racism in Django Unchained comes off as feeling more authentic than much of what we see in 42.

Whether it was intentional or not, 42 functions as the third installment in a series of inspirational triumph-in-the-face-of racism true life sports films that includes 2006's Glory Road and 2008's The Express, which took place in the world of college basketball and college football respectively. Helgeland's film isn't significantly better or worse than either of those PG-rated efforts, which also sought to dramatize history in a way that appeals to the family demographic. The movie's best attribute is Boseman, who does a fine job inhabiting a version of Robinson who has been written to more closely resemble Superman than an ordinary man. The trap that most biopics (including 42) fall into is that the central figure is often the least dynamic character in the film, as the filmmakers become so dazzled and/or intimidated by the legend that they forget to get at the man or woman behind it. So it goes with Helgeland's Robinson, who stoically endures the slings and arrows cast at him by ignorant yahoos, only allowing the noble fa├žade to break in a handful of obligatory private moments. And while that image of Jackie Robinson is rooted in fact -- as the script helpfully exposits for the audience, he had to remain stoic lest the press and public write him off as a hothead unfit to play a "gentleman's" game -- the disappointing thing about 42 is that it never digs much deeper than his history book persona, despite having a leading man who seems willing and eager to explore the less well-known (and, perhaps, less-admirable) aspects of Robinson's personality. Given the choice between printing the facts and the legend, it goes with the legend.

42 further ups its mythical quotient by structuring itself like a superhero origin story, with the first half given over to depicting Robinson's humble beginnings in the Negro Leagues, before he's tapped by Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford, whose performance begins closer to parody before settling down into his typical late-career mediocrity) to join the Dodgers-operated Montreal Royals, with the intention of bringing him to Brooklyn in time for Opening Day, 1947. Then at almost precisely the halfway point, he acquires the uniform that bears the titular number (which Helgeland's camera films with the kind of reverence afforded Superman's iconic S-shield) and begins the great battle against his primary nemesis, Major Prejudice -- embodied here by a gaggle of racist players, managers (most notably Alan Tudyk as a loudmouth redneck coaching for the Phillies) and epithet-shouting spectators. A sports movie novice, Helgeland does a competent, but unexceptional job with the on-field baseball action; most of the big plays are filmed in tight close-up (the better to hide the actors' dubious athleticism) and the wider shots have some noticeable digital tweaks, up to and including a CGI-ball. Superficialities aside, I can't deny that I often found myself cheering on Boseman-as-Robinson and was genuinely touched by the displays of camaraderie that his teammates eventually afforded him. (The Yankee cap- sporting kid sitting one row over from me was vocally moved by those scenes as well, so let it not be said that the movie doesn't play to its target audience.) But I still can't help but feel that Spike Lee would have been better equipped to give us the rousing, yet also painfully honest cinematic tribute that Jackie Robinson deserves.

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