Movie Review: 42

 Posted by on September 4, 2013 at 8:30 am  Film, Reviews & Discussions
Sep 042013

42 (2013) 4/10
Recruited by Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey, Jackie Robinson becomes the first African-American to play baseball in the major leagues.

It’s almost insane, the amount of potential this film had. Jackie Robinson’s story is compelling and heroic. Baseball has long been movie language for the American Dream, for inspiration, and for hope; some of cinema’s most lyrical films have used baseball to express a larger truth. There’s certainly a trend in movies now to depict racism of the past, from The Help to Django Unchained to The Butler, maybe because it’s easier to look at than the present, while still acknowledging how pervasive the issue is for audiences. Kind of like science fiction analogies for modern-day problems, a story like Jackie Robinson’s lets us feel good about the strides we’ve made as a culture while still sitting us squarely inside the experience of racism.

Unfortunately, 42 fails as a movie. It does so many things wrong that it serves almost as a primer on what not to do when making a movie. It’s over two hours long (and feels like three), and none of that length is justified, especially since relatively little of Robinson’s story is told. Here the filmmakers avoid the classic biopic error: The compulsion to tell a whole life. Call it the Ray error: Early childhood “explains” adulthood, step-by-step, moment by moment, cradle to grave. I’m rolling my eyes just typing it. 42 gives us Jackie Robinson from the time he’s recruited by the Dodgers through his first season of play: A clean segment of time that should have given the film room to breathe.

But little else about the film works. The movie is full of “tell” rather than “show,” with dialogue-heavy scenes that hammer home a message without much content besides “Racism is wrong” and “turn the other cheek.” We end up with little knowledge of Jackie the man, and no knowledge at all of Rachel Robinson besides “supportive wife.” Nicole Beharie doesn’t have a long resumé, but why bother casting a better-known actress in such an empty role?

Scenes are overplayed to the point of camp. How does Rachel Robinson learn she’s pregnant? Well, first there’s a moment when she feels inexplicably nauseated. THEN she goes to the ladies room and discusses how she feels with a stranger. Who THEN tells her she might be pregnant. THEN there’s a long look in the mirror. THEN we see a baby in a maternity ward with a caption reading “8 months later.” The nausea cliché and a cut to the maternity ward (without the caption) would have told the whole thing, but apparently writer/director Brian Helgeland is convinced the audience is very stupid indeed. It seems like every scene plays out with that same plodding commitment to strike Every. Single. Note. Usually with a musical cue at the end to make sure we know how we’re supposed to feel. It’s all incredibly lifeless.

There are a lot of familiar character actors here, mostly from TV, but they don’t add as much as they should. Alan Tudyk is the exception. His portrayal of viciously racist Philly’s manager Ben Chapman is staggering. He’s baldly and relentlessly nasty in a way that commands attention. The Chapman scenes, too, are dragged on, but Tudyk makes them shine.

I also question the casting of Chadwick Boseman in the lead role. The real Jackie Robinson was a heavy, solid man who also played football. Boseman’s build is slight and lithe, and seems to be in the “non-threatening person of color” mode. It’s not like he’s a brilliant actor or anything.

We really had high hopes for this movie. We saw bits of it on a plane and were excited to sit down and watch it On Demand. I wish the experience had rewarded our faith. Or our $4.99.


  15 Responses to “Movie Review: 42”

  1. Do you think they make films in this way with the full intent to be TV friendly? Dumbed down and formatted/stylized for TV play. I’m thinking of how often I see The Babe with John Goodman replaying on TV. That’s a movie that feels like an afterschool special more than a movie. It’s so milktoast that it could be on ESPN, History Channel, OWN, the MLB channel, or really any station and not jolt any particular viewership. It’s goodtime air filler more than a serious piece of any type of work. In a way, that “appeal to all audiences” makes some sense insofar as then being a film for the people and Our History and not as much a social issue film; history in the form of easily digestible entertainment rather than history in the form of film. I haven’t seen 42. I don’t trust movie makers at all anymore. But your review here made me think of how The Babe feels.

    • Interesting question. I don’t think it makes economic sense to make movies for TV replay, although it does make sense–and is often true–that they’re made for DVD sales.

  2. Dave Zirin, who writes about sports for The Nation, had a similar critique:

    It’s really more a sports movie than a biopic.

    • Zirin’s article is very interesting, because he came into the movie knowing much more about Robinson than I did. However, Zirin’s critique is about the complexity of Robinson as a person and the Disneyfying of baseball’s racism. He gets into the way that sports hero myths undermine movements: Individualism versus collective action.

      My real objections to 42 are simply that it’s bad movie-making.

      • It’s not so clear how much Zirin knows about Jackie Robinson so much as he knows what he believes people should think about Jackie Rosinson

        His article says far more about the chip on his shoulder than it does about the movie. It’s clear that he’s disappointed that it didn’t carry water for his personal political agenda. It seems he regrets a lot of American history regarding race-relations. He seems to really regret that he doesn’t have the wherewithal to satify his wish-fulfillment to make propaganda depicting his own personal political statement.

        As I said below, I haven’t carefully read up on Jackie Robinson’s life, so for me the jury is still out whether Zirin is honest when he says: “I don’t believe Jackie Robinson would have liked (the film) either”.

        Zirin is disingenuous to say:

        “We don’t get the Jackie Robinson who died at 52, looking 20 years older, broken by the weight of his own myth.”

        Zirin forgot to add that Robinson was diagnosed with diabetes in 1957 aged 38 -which has a way of hastening death in a way more tangible than Zirin’s precious and metaphorical “weight of (Robinson’s) own myth.”

        The man is so obsessed with his rectitude that he decries that Rickey was positively portrayed: “Harrison Ford plays Rickey as a great white savior”

        He apparently forget that Ford/Rickey said “I’m doing this to make money”.

        (so that should be “wealthy white savior”)

        How perverse. Never, in all the articles and commentaries I’ve read for decades, has anyone thought to denigrate Rickey (or his portrayal) for his role in breaking Baseball’s color barrier.

        As I stated below, I haven’t done a careful study of Rickey either. It’s important to realize that the film is mythology and not an “objective” or “balanced” treatment of the topic. But neither is Zirin’s wish-fulfillment.

  3. Moneyball was a wasted opportunity as well. I walked away from that movie not knowing anymore about that situation than I did after reading a short newspaper article. It told little of the two main characters, the situation, baseball, statistics, or anything really. It’s an interesting feat to fill 2+ hours with little of nothing. I guess we’re supposed to be happy with the idea movies are made about certain situations. That’s it. “At least they made a movie about it.” I can imagine a test group watching 42 with their dial controllers and feeling uncomfortable with a lot of things, so the bean counters hit the editing room hard. That’s why so many people wanting to make movies are heading to Kickstarter so they can control their art and not be dictated by “all these scenes with a score of less than X need to be cut or changed.” Zach Braff gave an interesting, though simple, interview about this Hollywood phenomena. They cannot dare make anyone in the audience feel uncomfortable. Not a lot of potential for meaningful stories if they’re attacking scripts and final products with a test group EKG. The movie heads don’t even need to watch the movie. All the needledrops below a certain number get axed.

    • I liked Moneyball quite a lot. I thought it was smart, very well-written, and very personal. Unlike 42, there was nothing generic about Moneyball.

  4. Here’s an article about the real Ben Chapman that you might find interesting:

  5. I got the DVD of this film from Netflix recently. As baseball movies go, this one struck out. I did think Harrison Ford’s performance as Branch Rickey, was awfully good.

  6. [“We end up with little knowledge of Jackie the man, and no knowledge at all of Rachel Robinson besides “supportive wife.”]

    I’ve never seen the movie, but a friend of mine complained about the same thing – a lack of personal knowledge of Robinson.

  7. What a shame. I was really looking forward to seeing it, too. But didn’t Ray only cover Charles up to 1965, when he kicked heroin?

    • It goes from early childhood to 1979.

      • Thanks, I haven’t seen it since it first came out, so the memory was a little fuzzy.

        Agree with what Tappan said about movies being ridiculously watered down by all the audience testing. I did enjoy Moneyball, though; it’s not the same experience as reading the book, because the movie only really talks about the 2002 A’s and not much that came before it, and also because Paul DePodesta (a baseball executive who was instrumental in creating the “Moneyball” approach to building rosters) had read an early draft of the script and asked that his name be taken out of it (hence the Peter Brand character, who was a composite of DePo and others, but looks and sounds nothing like DePo). But it’s fun. I don’t know if I’ve ever enjoyed Brad Pitt as an actor in any movie more than I enjoyed him in that one.

  8. Every item you cite as a turnoff may be objectively fairly rederered – and even valid for a certain segment of the movie-going audience, but the film completely disarmed my critical faculties. The two-plus hours melted away for me. I was ready for more when the film ended.

    Such are the vagaries of style and content.

    I first became aware of baseball at age ten. I was ten when I first played Little League. Nolan Ryan was a young fireballer with the Miracle Mets that year (1969). Mickey Mantle had just retired the year before and Jim Bouton was trying to hang on as an ex-Yankee-power-pitcher with the Seattle Pilots and the Houston Astros. He kept a diary and published an edited version (Ball Four) which because the all-time-best-seller in sports lit – and which is still in print.

    So, I’m squarely in 42’s target audience. I mostly avoid sports movies – for many of the same reasons you cite – but it’s such a compelling story, that I could not stay away.

    They don’t do exit polling at the movies, but I wonder what the female-male composition was in the theatres (I imagine men and boys outnumbered women and girls at least 3:1)

    Here’s what I recall:

    Moving dialog – I haven’t read any bio’s nor memoirs for either Rickey or Robinson, but the mythology, recounted numerous times in newspapers, magazines, and boys’ sports books, was respectfully addressed in the film. Rickey did have a long view. He moved methodically over a period of years, picked Robinson carefully, did not bull$#It Robinson when he started their conspiracy, and withstood the heat when it was applied both privately and publically.

    The Robinson actor may not have had Robinson’s physique – but he DID look like a ballplayer. He moved with grace and looked like he’s played baseball (which is hard to get past us who have witness thousands of games). Boseman’s lithe phyisique well fits Robinson’s reputation as a terror on the base paths (he stole home a record seven times one season and stole nearly four times the number of bases the average player stole 1947-56).

    The actress who played Mrs. Robinson was, like the actual personage, stunningly lovely. That her pregnancy and delivery was abbreviated and clichéd mattered not one whit to the story. What mattered more (by far) were the scenes showing that she loved, admired, and respected the Man, even as she feared for his safety. Baseball wives don’t get numbers – which is why the film is called “42” and not “Mrs. Robinson”.

    Harrison Ford sunk his teeth fully into Branch Rickey’s hide. As an athletic American man, I’ll bet he was proud to inhabit such an iconic and meaty role. He was born nearly a full generation before you and me (1942) so it’s likely he was fully aware of Rickey’s and Robinson’s late career even as it happened.

    The baseball venues were done magnificently and inspired in me a nostalgia I never experienced in person – but rather in books, magazines, and photographs. Baseball is unrivaled for its rich literary tradition which goes back to the nineteenth century – that alone sets up the baseball enthusiast and bookworm to appreciate that mid-century baseball atmosphere.

    This is hardly a reviewer’s observation, but 42 was only the second sports movie that choked me up (the scene with Jackie’s first professional game). It is most inconvenient to suppess sobs when trying to hear dialog,

    The other film was the ending of A League of Their Own – fine film in it’s own right.

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