Without Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball in 1947, there can be no Obama getting elected in 2008. Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe followed a year later on the same Brooklyn Dodgers team before the integration floodgates opened fully soon afterward. Just as Robinson’s stealing home 19 times in his career hardly seems real now, so, too, does the baseball establishment’s initial near-total resistance to Robinson seem a bit surreal in retrospect.
The film’s two most memorable scenes spell out both the hard time Robinson received and the sheer will it took to counteract the rebuffs. Manager Leo Durocher (a spectacular Christophet Meloni) calls the team together after catching wind they’ve signed a petition to get rid of Robinson. His tongue-lashing of his mutinous troops is one for the ages….Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk), a good old boy from Mississippi, stands in front of his dugout ripping Robinson with an incessant malice that knows very little bounds. (Philly will again come into play when the Dodgers are prevented from entering a hotel in which they customarily lodged.)
At the helm of the bold move was Dodger owner Branch Rickey (a very good Harrison Ford), who initially downplays any altruistic motive in his quest for what seemed like impossible change. He matter-of-factly attributes his reasons as, hey, pecuniary. Ford’s Rickey comes off all wise and crusty. He’s no-nonsense yet has the wisdom to tell Robinson, “I’m looking for a ballplayer with the guts not to fight back.” As relative newcomer Chadwick Boseman proves with a just-right performance as Robinson, it indeed does take big-time guts to put up with all the vitriol, beanballs, and deliberate spikings spewed in his direction. Director Brian Helgeland (Oscar winner and screenwriter for L.A. Confidential and Mystic River) does a noteworthy job of blending high drama with the baseball stuff. Helgeland took over Engel Stadium in Chattanooga and adapted it to resemble the three ballparks in the film, including Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. Concentrating on the single year of ’47, he avoids biting off more than he can chew. Although the lead characters could have benefited from a bit more depth, we get a real good feel for an era that seems a lot more distant than 65 years. Yet how ironic is it that we kept hearing repeatedly of Barak Obama’s campaign advice to stay cool, calm, and collected so as not to be seen as “the angry black man?” Some things never change. Robinson himself was called to testify before the often ludicrous House Un-American Activities Committee that as a black man he would still support America if it went to war against the Soviets.
Some have quibbled about a few details in the film. The 1947 Dodgers actually trained in Havana, not Florida. Durocher obviously probably didn’t utter his famous “nice guys finish last” comment under the circumstances depicted in the film, nor did he get suspended by Commissioner Happy Chandler for cavorting with a woman in an adulterous relationship but was actually suspended for “associating with known gamblers.” Sheesh!…42 is not a documentary and as a baseball biopic there is hardly anything to complain about. (The only previous theatrical movie treatment was The Jackie Robinson Story, a 1950 biopic that uniquely starred Robinson as himself despite also not being a documentary). In 42, inspiration is front and center, and ballplayers (including a very plausible Pee Wee Reese, Ralph Branca, and Eddie Stanky, who stands up to Chapman) seem and play a lot like real ballplayers. Finally, we feel up close this very important chapter in American history that not enough of us previously knew much about.
Now if only modern players would try stealing home these days. Like most of Robinson’s depicted feats, it takes guts.