This week’s episode of Behind the Dish includes my conversation with John C. McGinley, who plays broadcaster Red Barber in 42 and was a fantastic guest. I also have a new column up discussing recent outings from three young NL starters – Jose Fernandez, Matt Harvey, and Julio Teheran.
The Jackie Robinson biopic 42, opening nationwide on Friday, is a superficial, Hollywood-ized version of the part of Robinson’s life from the Dodgers’ decision to add a black player to their organization until the end of his first season in the majors. A complicated person going through an emotional trial largely unthinkable to viewers today, Robinson is reduced in this film to an intense, brooding, slightly reluctant hero, on screen to be worshiped rather than admired for his strengths and his flaws.
The movie limits itself mostly to two years, 1946 and 1947, and simplifies the story to one where the Dodgers quickly identify Robinson as the player to help them break the color bar, let him dominate the International League for a year (taking just moderate abuse from white players and fans), and bring him up to the majors for a perfunctory tour of the racists of the National League. At nearly every step, Robinson responds to the abuse, mostly verbal with a few attempts to injure him, on the field, always providing the well-timed homer or the easy stolen base to shut up, even for a moment, his antagonists.
Only once do we see Robinson truly respond to the torrent of hate from whites, combined with the weight of expectations from blacks, in the way we’d expect any human being to respond, giving the film its pivotal scene and the one point where Robinson felt like a real person, rather than a two-dimensional character descended from Mt. Olympus. The movie needed that scene, as a catharsis for any empathetic viewers who could only imagine the pressure building up inside Robinson, as he isn’t allowed to respond to taunts or humiliations except with his abilities on the field. What 42 also needed, but didn’t get, was smaller instances of Robinson facing the frustrations – days when he might have gone 0-for-4, failed to come up big in a critical situation, and merely empowered the bigots who said he didn’t belong on the field with white players. Instead, we get trivial scenes of domestic bliss, powered by the beautiful Nicole Behairie in a wasted role as Robinson’s wife Rachel.
Even the process of getting Robinson to the big leagues is far too easy. Branch Rickey’s decision is shown as impetuous, and the internal debate within the Dodgers’ front office (which never seems to include the actual owner of the team) is minimal. The trio of executives select Robinson from a stack of folders on players with scouting reports and biographical information, but we never see the Dodgers actually scout anyone – eventually one of the executives tracks down Robinson’s Negro League team, coincidentally right after he has emerged from a whites-only bathroom at a gas station, and summons him to Brooklyn. The year in Montreal is barely shown, and the decision to promote Robinson to the majors is a formality. While 42 doesn’t make it look easy for Robinson, it does make the journey look a lot smoother than it actually was, an emphasis on Robinson himself that detracts from the magnitude of what he accomplished in reality.
Two aspects of the movie stood out as reasons to see it despite its weaknesses. One was the array of strong performances in leading and secondary roles. Chadwick Boseman (Robinson) does his best with limited material, as he can’t display more than two or three emotions over the course of the entire film, but has a strong enough on-screen presence to command scenes where he sits at the center – except, of course, when Harrison Ford, playing Branch Rickey, is in the room. Ford shocked me with his portrayal of Rickey, one because the script itself did a strong job of depicting Rickey as less than perfect, but also because Ford, even when blustering as Rickey blustered, didn’t chew up entire scenes – he dialed back enough for everyone else, even Boseman, to maintain a presence on the sceen. (We also didn’t get quite enough of Rickey’s motivations for breaking baseball’s unofficial but fifty-year-old color bar; the anecdote he tells Robinson near the end of the film was likely true, appearing in every Rickey biography I’ve read, but the movie doesn’t give the detail that makes the story even more compelling.) Alan Tudyk (Wash from Firefly) is frighteningly effective as the racial-epithet-spewing manager Ben Chapman, whose treatment of Robinson on the field may have led to the early end of his managing career, while McGinley hits his accented, staccato Red Barber impersonation to the point where I wouldn’t have recognized McGinley’s voice if I hadn’t seen him on screen. I wish Leo Durocher had stuck around in the story longer (in reality, that is) so we could have seen more of Christopher Meloni in that role, and thought Andre Holland was largely wasted in a one-note role as sportswriter Wendell Smith, where they made him look less like a writer of the ’40s than like he was about to break into the chorus of “Jerk Out.”
I also thought the baseball within the film was depicted reasonably well, particularly the visuals – creating fields and crowd scenes that looked somewhat appropriate for the time (although, like the entire film, everything is far too bright and clean). The movie relies heavily on apocryphal incidents, like the time Pee Wee Reese may or may not have put his arm around Robinson on the field in Cincinnati and practically read his teammate his eulogy while everyone else waits around for them to finish. The actual movements of players passed the eye test, however, perhaps in part because the extras included a number of former pro players, including one name in particular that jumped out at me during the closing credits. Even the stolen base sequences, which had to be the hardest to film, were good enough for the big screen – not perfect, but I doubt most viewers will be bothered by the catchers’ arm actions or the timing of Robinson’s jumps.
I could see 42 becoming a popular film because of the appeal of Robinson as an American hero – a veteran who destroyed one of the most visible examples of segregation in America, an achievement with tremendous symbolic value that presaged the civil rights movement of the two decades that followed it. But canonizing Robinson was unnecessary; a film that depicted Robinson as angry, frustrated, and flawed would not reduce his myth in the least. It is easier to believe in heroes who are human. The script of 42 tells us twice that Robinson may have been superhuman, and that lionization diminishes his legacy, and us in the process.
* I haven’t read Blackout: The Untold Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Spring Training, but came across it when researching the epilogue’s claim about Ed Charles (which this book apparently confirms). If any of you have read it, I’d like to hear whether it’s worthwhile, as the description on amazon implies that it has more of the ugly details of Robinson’s trials in that first year.