Jonathan Eig’s Nine-Inning Review Of ’42’

42-2013-Movie-Poster1. I loved Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson, especially when he’s on the field. He’s intense, athletic, electric.

2. I liked Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey, although they should have made him smellier, if that’s possible in the movies. I think it is.

3. The baseball action was terrific—especially the spring training scene in which Robinson steals two bases and gets balked home. I was bouncing in my seat. Absolutely thrilling.

4. They borrowed a few lines from “Opening Day,” my book about Robinson’s first season. When Red Barber says, “Jackie is very definitely a brunette,” that was mine, for sure. Cool.

5. The historical inaccuracies didn’t bother me. I know almost beyond a doubt that Pee Wee Reese didn’t put an arm around Robinson to silence an abusive crowd in 1947 in Cincinnati, and he sure as hell didn’t whisper those powerful and heartfelt words in Robinson’s ear. There were other things, too, but so what? If you want the truth, check out a documentary.

6. If anything, I wish director Brian Helgeland had given himself permission to mess even more with history. He bends over backward to show all the Dodgers who were kind to Robinson, including Pee Wee, Ralph Branca, Eddie Stanky, Gene Hermanski, and even Bobby Bragan. He wastes precious time on characters who add little or nothing to the story (Burt Shotton?!). That’s time the director could have spent showing the evolving racism of characters like Dixie Walker, or, better yet, getting deeper into Robinson’s character. Branch Rickey is the only character in the movie that feels three-dimensional, and that’s a problem when your movie’s not called “Branch Rickey.”

7. The climax is anticlimactic. If you’re going to have Robinson hit a home run to clinch the pennant—something that didn’t really happen—why not go all in? Make it a game-winning, walk-off home run against a team that’s tied for first place. Make it the final game of the season. Hell, have a sniper aiming a rifle at Robinson’s head from beyond the outfield wall (okay, maybe not). Or else tell the truth—that Robinson led the Dodgers to the World Series, played brilliantly on the game’s biggest stage, and fought gamely in defeat. But this? A fourth-inning homer against Fritz Ostermueller of the Pirates in a game that meant almost nothing? What was the point?

8. “42” tries too hard to please. It wants the endorsement of the Robinson family, Major League Baseball, historians, and fans young and old. It wants to educate and entertain. It wants black fans to feel pride and white fans to appreciate how far we’ve come. It succeeds in almost every one of those ways. It makes for a good movie, but not a great one. “42” plays it safe, something Jackie Robinson never did. Robinson was a complicated man, full of fear and fury. I wish more of his complexity made it to the screen.

9. I left the theater smiling. I enjoyed the movie, and so did my kids. But I found myself wondering how it would have turned out if Spike Lee had directed. He might not have done better, but I don’t think he would have played it safe.

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