At the Movies with Alan Gekko: 42 “2013”

MPAA Rating: PG-13/ Genre: Sports Docudrama/ Stars: Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, André Holland, Christopher Meloni, John C. McGinley, Toby Huss, Lucas Black, Alan Tudyk, Nicole Beharie, C. J. Nitkowski, Brett Cullen, Ryan Merriman, T. R. Knight, Hamish Linklater, Brad Beyer, Jesse Luken, Max Gail, Peter MacKenzie, James Pickens Jr./ Runtime: 128 minutes

I feel the best way to start this review dear reader would be to pose a question to you: what would the great American pastime that is baseball be if we didn’t have the fastball that Bob Gibson brought to the game, the skill that Hank Aaron had in hitting home runs, the quickness that Ricky Henderson brought in stealing bases, the legendary walk off home run in a World Series courtesy of Joe Carter, or the beautiful swing of Ken Griffey Jr.? Indeed none of these truly iconic moments or players of this truly wonderful sport would have been possible had it not been for the immense courage and inner strength of character of one Jackie Robinson. Not only was Jackie the first African-American to play in what had otherwise been up until that point the whites-only Major Leagues, but he was also the man who lifted up a dream and a hope that African American athletes at that time carried in their hearts and placed it firmly on his shoulders and heroically ran it all the way home. To that end, the movie I am reviewing today known as 42 is one which showcases the riveting story of one man’s determination to obliterate the racial barrier in professional sports and another man’s courage and heart to take the chance he was being offered and play despite the horrendous amounts of hatred and racial rancor he was to face both on and off the field. Indeed the baseball legend that is Mr. Ted Williams is known for once saying that the most difficult thing one could accomplish in the world of sports was swatting a round ball with a round bat. Yet for Robinson the game was the easy part since he was a truly gifted athlete. Rather, it was the overwhelming prejudice, hatred, and just immense fear a lot of people had of the fact that times were a ‘changing whether they liked it or not that really proved to be not only his most tasking challenge, but the thing which really stung the most. Suffice it to say then that 42 manages to not only nail that remarkably well but also, courtesy of wonderful work on both ends of the camera and a riveting narrative, manages to be a home run in how it shows how one man’s determination and passion for the game he loved more than anything managed to open people’s eyes and their hearts and show them that yes the first step is the hardest, but you keep on going especially when you’re doing something as noble as trying to better all of mankind through the simple act of hitting a ball or stealing a base.

The plot is as follows: 42 takes us back in time to the late 1940s and introduces us to a team known as the Brooklyn Dodgers. A team that, among other attributes, is known for being a pretty darn good team which has just (yet again) come so close to winning the pennant only to have it taken right from under them. To that end, we see team general manager Branch Rickey decide, much to the shock of some and the consternation of many, to go against the unwritten segregation guidelines of baseball at the time and find a player from the Negro Leagues who wouldn’t just be able to aid the Dodgers in finally nabbing the pennant and bring more money in, but also be able to handle all the hate and racial rancor that would be hurtled their way nearly every waking moment. It isn’t long thereafter before we see Rickey select a standout player from the Kansas City Monarchs by the name of Jackie Robinson who first is given over to the Dodgers’ Minor League affiliate the Montreal Royals in order to see if he truly has what it takes. Suffice it to say then that while Robinson does truly phenomenal work on the field, he is faced with near constant harassment. Harassment that only manages to subsequently get worse when he is finally brought onto the Dodgers proper, and is forced to combat everything from fastballs to the head, racist head coaches for other teams, and even a few of his own teammates who outright don’t even want to be playing alongside him. Thus can Jackie overcome the bias and racially charged rancor and prove to his teammates, Branch, and most of all himself that he is meant to be there and thus take his place in history? That, dear reader, I will leave you to discover for yourself…..

Now there is a distinct “Sunday Night Movie” or something similar to what you would see on “The Wonderful World of Disney” vibe to this film, but it is a style that manages to work in delightful synchronicity with the narrative. Indeed that is because instead of trying to be a cinematic outing which takes away from the narrative and its significance in history and puts more of an emphasis on the look or feel of the movie, an audience is able to experience just what this iconic figure went through during one of the most crucial times in the 20th century in the United States. Indeed this is a movie that is not only quite straightforward, but which also checks off the boxes when it comes to racism without immersing oneself too deeply in the psyche of Robinson, Rickey, or any other integral characters in this movie yet it also, in all fairness, doesn’t need to do so. A fact that is due more to both how the reality of what these characters experience is showcased quite clearly and the individual characters sense of development is also constructed courtesy of external ingredients. Thus this is a film where we see a synchronicity between the external and internal since not only does the potent pathos, and the constant assault by prejudice all help to shape who these characters are on a internal level, but the stuff on the inside also helps to make the success of Robinson as both a player and as a man period that much more impressive to witness throughout the course of the film.

To that end, it should be noted that this is not exactly a baseball film per se, but is instead a human narrative as showcased through baseball. Indeed every scene of baseball action be it a base being stolen, a pitch to the head or in that general area, every hit to either a base or completely out of the park is all a representation of Robinson’s struggle to gain acceptance with both the fans and his fellow players and are part of the more significant context of Jackie’s personal tale that, although defined by a lot of achievements on the field, were molded and crafted by the hate, fear, and varying attitudes he encountered on it. Indeed there is a narrative beyond the game itself or any actions done by Robinson or anyone else during said game and that’s also why the action feels a lot more understated than you might be expecting. Yet even though this film doesn’t have the razzle dazzle of something like The Natural for example, it still does possess the heart at the core of that film whilst also conjuring up some pretty engaging moments of baseball that help to strengthen the pathos and construct our main character. If anything, the better baseball film to compare this one to would be Field of Dreams since both films when you get right down to it aren’t really about the sport of baseball, but rather about the human tales that sports can birth and the pathos that run like a river from those stories. However you choose to look at it, there is no denying how impressive it is that this film manages to keep such a focus on Robinson and barely on any distraction side plots that his tale and everything that’s a part of it manages to be the main thing this film not only chooses to focus on, but have everything pointing toward rather than deterring from.

Finally it should also be noted that 42 also scores due to its ability to nearly seamlessly recreate and place us in the time period that it takes place in. Yes in all fairness there may be a subtle lean more towards a “golden afternoon” kind of style, but it is not overwhelming in the slightest. Indeed this is a film which feels genuine from the cars being driven all the way to the uniforms being worn. Suffice it to say then that the design of the film manages to easily do a wonderful job of aiding the overall narrative and helping in its own way to allow the core narrative mold and take shape. As for the performances in this film well they are all, pardon the pun, complete and utter home runs through and through. Indeed in the lead role we have the tragically taken from us way too soon Chadwick Boseman and he is truly magnificent. Indeed Boseman manages to portray the iconic legend that is Jackie Robinson with an effortlessness that ensnares all of the pathos necessary from the happiest moments to the most immersive sorrow, from the most astounding triumphs on the field to the most emotional moments where he breaks down in private due to all the racial scorn and hatred being mercilessly piled on to him. Yet through it all, Boseman intuitively comprehends that the key to success is not becoming this truly iconic man, but rather in permitting the audience to comprehend just who this man was and the struggles that he went through. As a result this is yet another truly iconic performance from a truly gifted performer who was tragically taken from us much too soon. Doing just as wonderful work, albeit in a supporting capacity, is acting legend Harrison Ford in the role of gruff yet devoted and understanding team owner Branch Rickey. Indeed Ford manages to completely immerse himself in the role whilst also balancing out the fact that Rickey was very much aware of the significance of what he was choosing to do and showcase that it wasn’t just about conquering long-standing prejudices, but also about making a pretty penny and finally winning a pennant that had always been just out of reach for his beloved Dodgers. The rest of the supporting cast all manage to do their part in making this truly iconic slice of history come alive for the film and all give wonderful performances of their own. Yes the film may feel thin and that it’s moving too fast at points, but it also doesn’t turn this film into a fairy tale much in the vein of the Robert Redford baseball film The Natural either and that is a win for a film such as this that is striving to be as realistic and respectful as possible to the subject and his truly incredible story.

All in all I am proud to say that 42 manages to ensnare quite thoroughly the essence of just what had to happen not only for the color barrier in the great American pastime that is baseball to begin crumbling down, but to also begin shifting to a much bigger sense of equality here in the United States as well. Indeed this film may be wonderfully performed, and wonderfully done on a technical level, but its most riveting accomplishment is how it focuses of the genuine human pathos at the heart of the story courtesy of not exactly utilizing any of the typical forms of excess that can be seen cinematically and exchanging it for the main drama at the center of the narrative and how important this story is from a historical perspective. More than anything, 42 is a riveting story of how one man’s courage not only inspired those around him, but also inspired the country to take a long hard look at themselves and the world around them and realize that no matter if it was on the baseball diamond or elsewhere that it was time for true equality to at long last finally have its day. On a scale of 1-5 I give 42 a solid 4 out of 5.