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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: 42


42 (Also Blu-ray/DVD/Ultra Violet Digital Combo Pack) (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Brian Helgeland, 2013 (Warner Bros.)

42D-07012r“42” was the number that Jackie Robinson wore when he played with the Brooklyn Dodgers. It was the number on his uniform when he broke professional baseball’s unwritten ban against blacks playing on the previously all-white teams. That number, and Jackie, are parts of not just sports history but of American social, cultural and political history as well.

The movie 42 is the story of how Robinson (played by d Chadwick Boseman) crossed that barrier, of what Jackie and his wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie) went through in the years covered (from 1945 to 1947), of how he stood up against taunts, jeers and verbal and physical abuse both on and off the playing field, and how he (and the people who chose him, supported him and played with him), finally ended the shameful history of racial prejudice in baseball—opening the door that thousands of  baseball players of color have gone through ever since.

It’s also the chronicle, filmed by writer-director Brian Helgeland, of a lesser-known hero named Branch Rickey. Rickey (played by Harrison Ford) was general manager of the Dodgers in 1945 and he was the executive who conceived and masterminded Robinson’s entry into the major leagues, handpicking him as the player to take on the job of cracking the racial barrier.

Rickey was 65 when he chose Robinson and Robinson was 26 when he signed the contract. But the movie makes them a well-matched, intuitively connected team. Rickey, whom Ford plays as a tough old man with a gravelly voice and a dry, candid wit, comes across as a guy with lots of baseball savvy, but also with a burning sense of fair play and righteous indignation. Boseman plays Jackie as a tough, ambitious young kid with a similar send of justice, who seizes the chance Rickey gives him.

The movie covers 1945 to 1947, which begin with Robinson still playing for the Negro leagues in Kansas City, and Rickey—far away in Brooklyn—cooking up his plan to integrate baseball. (Among Rickey’s other candidates were catcher Roy Campanella and the ageless master pitcher Satchel Paige, both of whom eventually made it to the “bigs” as well).

Then we watch as Robinson, under Rickey’s protection, goes from the Kansas City Monarchs to the Montreal Royals (a Dodger farm team) and finally to the Ebbets Field stomping grounds of “Dem Bums” (the Dodgers)—all the while having to cope with the hostility of other teams, segregation, isolation in the South, physical threats, and the hostility of some of his teammates as well. The most memorable of the scenes of racial tension is the heckling session—a grinning torrent of six-letter words (all the same word, beginning with “n”) poured on Jackie by Phillies manager Ben Chapman (played with utterly believable malice and ease by actor Alan Tudyk).

Jackie Robinson played himself in the 1950 bio-movie The Jackie Robinson Story, with mixed results. (The Hollywood Reporter though, predicted a possible movie career for him—which is something that actually happened for the young actress who played Rachel Robinson, Ruby Dee.) Boseman endows Jackie with an inner turbulence tightly contained. We can accept Boseman’s Jackie as a great athlete, and also as a charismatic and determined figure—matched, every step of he way, by Beharie as wife Rachel.

42D-05348rAs Ford plays him—in one of his best recent performances—Rickey is clearly acting out of conviction. Rickey, who had seen racism in action his entire career, simply felt that black players were getting a raw deal. He wanted to right some of those wrongs. But he was also acting out of enlightened self-interest, Rickey knew, as a canny baseball man, that a lot of first-rate talent was being ignored and wasted. He wanted both to improve his team and to improve America—and he ultimately did both.

The Dodgers, after all were no desperate, floundering team looking for a gimmick to create controversy and draw crowds. They had finished second in the National League pennant race the year before (to St. Louis) and they had star players—including shortstop Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black), pitcher Ralph Branca (Hamish Linklater), Dixie Walker (Ryan Merriman) and second baseman Eddie Stanky (Jessie Luken)—as well as the most colorful manager then in (or out of) the sport, Hollywood ladies‘ man (he was married to actress Laraine Day), Leo Durocher (Christopher Meloni). Durocher was the dugout philosopher who coined the phrase “Nice guys finish last.”

These Dodgers were among the elite units in baseball, but they were also cursed with their own share of prejudice (Walker was among the players who circulated a petition against Jackie), yet also blessed with tolerance and anti-bigotry as well. Branca, Stanky, Durocher (who had to miss the season, after pressure group objections to his private life) and Reese were among Jackie’s allies. And Reese, in real life, was responsible for a gesture that makes for the movie’s single most moving moment. When a crowd jeers Robinson (as was usual in his early major league days)’ Pee Wee (who hailed from Kentucky) walks over to his teammate, puts his arm around Jackie’s shoulders, and looks out quietly t the abusive fans.

I liked 42. I liked the performances, including fine turns by John McGinley as the elegant sports announcer Red Barber and Andre Holland as another reporter and Jackie‘s guide, Wendell Smith. Moments like the scene with Robinson and Reese—which you just don’t see in most new movies (at least done that convincingly)—are a big part of what makes 42 good.

Writer-director Helgeland is no softie. As either writer or as writer-director, he’s been a specialist in tough, knowing neo-noirs—ranging from L. A. Confidential (which won him a best screenplay Oscar) to putridly violent and brutal Point Blank remake (with Mel Gibson) Payback. 42, in his hands, is not overly sentimental. But he’s no automatic hard-edged cynic either. 42 is emotional and, at times, inspiring. Helgeland tells it well, with feeling for the characters, especially Jackie and Rickey: for what they meant to their time and ours, to baseball and to all of us. Sometimes, it’s good to have a hero. Or two.

Extras: None. (A badly missed opportunity.)

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One Response to “Wilmington on DVDs: 42”

  1. Dan O. says:

    The movie does feel “by-the-books” in a couple of scenes, but it’s still an enjoyable movie that’s worth a watch. Good review Mike.


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
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“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon