Sunday, May 19, 2013


The Story Of Branch Rickey's "Discovery"

Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey and Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson in Brian Helgeland's "42". 
Warner Brothers


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Sunday, May 19, 2013

Brian Helgeland's "42", which proclaims to be "the true story of an American Legend", is instead the story of Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey's "discovery" of Jackie Robinson, who would become the first black player in Major League Baseball in 1947.  Unlike the hero it portrays Mr. Helgeland's drama plays things safe, delivering a sanitized, surface-type treatment of Mr. Robinson and his entrance on the American baseball stage.  "42" is an exercise told within the lines, a cookie-cutter digestible that feels like a made-in-the-1950s Hollywood film for today's Millennial audience.

Mr. Helgeland's film, which begins in the Negro Leagues circa World War Two, spends inordinate time showing various white characters salving their guilty consciences and shifting mentalities about race and black people rather than celebrating, exploring and unearthing Jackie Robinson as a three-dimensional figure.  This is the film's greatest disservice.  The reality is that "42" doesn't bring audiences Mr. Robinson's perspective -- the film isn't lensed through his eyes. 

Instead, a black sport journalist (played by Andre Holland), an "angelic"-type figure often seen in "safe" Hollywood films, narrates parts of "42", and the film's remainder is about the philosophies and character of Mr. Rickey (played with entertaining gusto and nobility by Harrison Ford).  Modern-day audiences who come into "42" knowing little of Jackie Robinson to begin with -- the best film about him remains "The Jackie Robinson Story", in which its title subject starred -- will come out of "42" still knowing very little about the life or political dimensions of Mr. Robinson. 

To be fair, in the truest sense "42" is a baseball movie, not a biopic.  Mr. Helgeland's stilted and clichéd film intersects a bland and cursory treatment of Mr. Robinson's life with the story of an endearing charismatic young boy (Dusan Brown) who marvels at the icon's talents as he watches Robinson steal bases.  Yet, most of all, the heart of "42" is its benevolent paternal white figure in Mr. Rickey, whose quiet and gruff fires of moral righteousness and religious gilding underpins the film.  As played by Mr. Ford, best known for his earlier everyman movie roles ("Clear And Present Danger", "Frantic", "The Fugitive") it is Rickey, not really Robinson, who appeals to conscience -- both America's and the moviegoer's, in "42". 

By contrast, despite the strength and power of Chadwick Boseman, in first-time lead acting carrying gravity as the legendary Jackie, there's never a real moment of first-person in-his-shoes drama, so that "42" in total is an experience the audience is collectively (and strangely) removed from.  What should be a crowd-pleasing film rings deafeningly hollow.  What should be a scene of jubilation for the film's subject in the closing stages of "42" is a moment where writer-director Helgeland opts for a lingering shot of Mr. Ford wearing a big smile of satisfaction.  It's an odd, problematic image at best, though one entirely consistent with a film that nibbles around the edges of Mr. Robinson, who is viewed almost exclusively through the eyes of everyone else -- excluding himself.

I was left feeling unsatisfied and wanting so much more from "42", a sometimes curious but tidy film that on paper screams grandeur and majesty with its larger-than-life figure.  Like Michael Mann's "Ali", "42" stumbles.  As I watched I could see that "42" was trying too hard, and that Mr. Helgeland's script was disjointed, uncomfortable and incomplete.  The film and its title character deserved a better treatment.

No doubt "42" has one or two intense scenes of persistent racial vitriol.  One of these scenes is spoiled, and awkwardly so, by the fatherly presence of Mr. Rickey.  It's a scene where Mr. Robinson's pain, and perhaps his one chance to connect with the audience and convey the emotional resonance of his struggles, is dashed.  The film's shifting episodes of brotherhood and humanity amongst some of Mr. Robinson's Brooklyn Dodgers teammates and coaches are effective, most especially Lucas Black as Pee Wee Reese, the famed Kentucky native and Dodgers shortstop who embraced Mr. Robinson. 

Still, "42" is about everyone else but Robinson, softening, short-cutting and almost trivializing the meaning of the man.  We merely glimpse the loving and counseling relationship between Jackie and Rachel (played engagingly and warmly by Nicole Beharie, "Shame", "American Violet".)  Mr. Helgeland's film should have been called "The Branch Rickey Story", as he is the main focus of "42".  (In Mr. Helgeland's defense the film isn't titled "Jackie", and in that way it is not quite as egregious a diversion as last year's "Django Unchained", which centered much more on its white counterparts than the title figure.)

In short, the biggest mistake of "42" that this relatively brief film never fully belongs to Jackie Robinson or Mr. Boseman.  What endures is the pageantry of iconography and the distinct feeling that Jackie Robinson is a 2013 commodity of yesteryear America rather than a full-blooded and dimensional human being -- a commodity who is legendary but without sufficient depth.  Mr. Helgeland has blown a wonderful opportunity to make "42" one for the film history books.  One suspects that Ken Burns, in a documentary on Mr. Robinson to be released next year on PBS television, will hit the home run where Mr. Helgeland sensationally strikes out.

Also with: Christopher Meloni, Ryan Merriman, Hamish Linklater, Blake Sanders, Alan Tudyk, Rhoda Griffis, Toby Huss, John C. McGinley.

"42", released in April, continues to play across the U.S. and Canada.  The film is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for thematic elements including language.  The film's running time is two hours and two minutes.   

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