I watched 42 this morning for Friday on Demand, and I’m glad I did.
Director and writer Brian Helgeland’s Jackie Robinson nostalgia flick establishes a bold tone from the very first moment. Mark Isham’s musical score is strong, straightforward, and as engaging as the WWII era film clips on the screen. The movie has the glories of historical nostalgia pieces, a glowing look back at our past victories, in this case, the victory of a heroic sportsman and his franchise owner against institutionalized racism. The film is told as an opera. Every black person is flawless, impeccably groomed, perfectly dressed, self-possessed, eloquent and idealistic. Every white is either a fan of Jackie Robinson or an obvious ignorant racist bigot, and you can tell by who has the messiest uniforms, the worst grooming, and who slouches the most in the dugout. Good guys and bad guys face off emotionally as clearly as the baseball teams on the field.
But hey, folks, opera isn’t all bad. (Star Wars is opera, and together with Flash Gordon they pretty much define the genre space opera.) A baseball movie about racism in the second Obama administration isn’t exactly breaking ground. If this movie had been made and released in the late 60’s or even 70’s, I might be more impressed, but for the most part 42 bangs on the same familiar drum as an endless number of films since the civil rights movement. The segregation fight was long-since over before I was even born.
If 42 isn’t Sidney Poitier’s In the Heat of the Night, there’s nothing wrong with it as a nostalgia sports film. Non-baseball aficionado’s will be able to follow the sports play with no problem, a combination of selling physical performances by actors and play-by-play narration by the announcer. The story is engaging enough that even a non-sports-fan like me won’t feel left out of the inside joke (although I have no doubt a dedicated sports fan will find this movie to be a sort of super Easter egg hunt). It helps that Jackie Robinson really is a national hero for his high-profile breakthrough against prejudice and hatred. 42 avoids making it a one-man band. I was pleasantly surprised to see how well the movie covered the fact that Jackie Robinson couldn’t have made it on his own without a shot from Branch Rickey, and Branch Rickey needed management, reporters, and many others. This really was an it-takes-a-village sort of victory, and those make for excellent nostalgia flicks. We watch the hard-won victories that our forefathers or group-members won, and leave feeling vicariously victorious, as if we are part of the victory because we have shared in their story. 42 blatantly sets out to celebrate such a triumph, and it succeeds.
The movie could not succeed without acting. Chadwick Boseman delivers a delightfully strong, physical, and respectable Jackie Robinson. He’s more than a dumb-jock type actor despite his raw athleticism. Boseman gives a strong performance that fills gaps in dialogue with steady screen presence, visible non-verbals, and general skill, but he doesn’t hold a candle to Harrison Ford’s frankly Oscar-worthy performance as Branch Rickey. Ford transforms himself physically (I had to reassure a fellow watcher that it was in fact Ford) and delivers line after line of pure gold. Harrison Ford’s a former carpenter, a really strong and physical guy, but he takes on the persona of an older capitalist, drawing all the strength needed from personal idealism and impeccable delivery. It makes me weep that 42‘s sports-movie roles means that Ford is unlikely to be nominated much less win.
The casting director made a fantastic choice for the supporting cast. There just aren’t any weak performances here. The world of the 1947 Dodgers has been peopled with matured child-actors and minor-league talents brought up from theaters and smaller roles. The result: there isn’t a single person on this screen who gives less than 100% at any given moment on screen. No one phones in a performance, and it shows like the big production number in an old-style musical. The most familiar faces are Ryan Merriman (young Jared from The Pretender) as Dixie Walker, and Minnesota’s own T.R. Knight who made it big from the Guthrie.
42 isn’t perfect. It sometimes takes too much advantage playing a battle that’s already won, drastically exaggerating the opposition and turning situations up to eleven. Young Henry Friedman plays a boy who learns racism from his father at the game, and then is cured of the lesson in the very same game when a white Dodgers player hugs Robinson on the field. Seriously? When the spring training portion of the story talks about racist violence, a white vigilante mob emerges miraculously next to Robinson’s car like redneck zombies. I wasn’t sure if someone was going to shout the n-word or shout out about their hunger for brraaaaaiiiins.
Petty criticisms of heavy-handedness aside, 42 is a celebration of a time and person worth celebrating. It’s done respectfully, warmly, and brightly. The nostalgia, going back to a time when the Bible was much more common in public conversation, actually includes religious messaging to a degree that would shock moderns, but doesn’t even approach the actual Christian content of public speech at the time. This movie is about good and famous people who fight for clear right against clear wrong, and everything is resolved in time for dinner.
It may be opera, but if 42‘s encouraging message and rewarding ending rubs off on non-sports movies, genre fiction will be better off for it.