April 10, 2013



42:  Watch It At Home – The Hallmark Baseball Hall of Fame

It may well be that 42 is the Jackie Robinson movie audiences want.  It’s a straightforward, handsomely-produced, inspirational telling of a genuinely uplifting story, the 1946-47 baseball seasons when Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) broke the color line in American baseball, first in the minor leagues and then for the Brooklyn Dodgers and its shrewd owner Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford).  Brian Helgeland’s film aims squarely for the Field of Dreams sweet spot where baseball heroics combine with a lump in the throat, and the result is a feel-good piece of Americana.

The filmmaker who very publicly hoped to make this movie for decades, though, and was never able to put together the financing, is Spike Lee, and one can’t help but wonder what a different kind of film his would have been.  Divisive, probably, and controversial, but also potentially daring and cinematically exciting.  Helgeland, in contrast, never takes a risk in 42, burnishing every image (the cinematography is by Don Burgess, whose films include Forrest Gump and the Sam Raimi Spider-Man) with the kind of glow that makes the 1940s look like a roped-off museum exhibit, enveloping the movie with Mark Isham’s soaring score (still no equal to Randy Newman’s for The Natural)–and treating the characters roughly the same way.

Jackie Robinson was a true American hero, but portraying him as an icon instead of a fully-formed human being makes him less interesting than he almost undoubtedly was in reality.  Helgeland’s script is, pardon the expression in this context, purely black and white, and Bozeman plays Robinson as a Sidney Poitier figure from 1960s Hollywood, the guy Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn would ultimately want their daughter to marry.  Brought to the big leagues because of Rickey’s belief that he could hold in his temper and take the inevitable abuse that would come his way, he is endlessly dignified and composed, losing his temper in only one strong scene, and even then when alone in a stadium hallway.

The supporting characters are mostly one-dimensional.  There is The Teammate Who Becomes His Friend (Lucas Black as Pee Wee Reese), The Loyal Wife (Nicole Beharie), The Gruff But Fair-Minded Coach (Christopher Meloni as Leo Durocher), and so on.   Andre Holland bears the bulk of the script’s most self-consciously mythic dialogue and narration as reporter Wendell Smith, based on a real-life writer who hopefully was less pompous than the one on screen.  Alan Tudyk deserves some kind of bonus for taking on the most hateful figure in recent American film (and that includes the villains in Django Unchained, not to mention the demon in Evil Dead), as the real-life Phillies manager who spent a full game taunting Robinson with the most revolting racial slurs, which the player had to take without complaint.  Tudyk (mostly known as a comic actor, currently on Suburgatory, but who was a memorable psychopath on Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse) never tries to distance himself as an actor from what his character is doing, and the scene has tremendous impact.

But really, only Harrison Ford’s Rickey makes an impression as a character.  He doesn’t particularly try to play someone other than Harrison Ford (his Rickey is really just the cranky anchorman from his Morning Glory performance with some padding and make-up), but he knows how to wring all the detail and shading out of Hegeland’s script (and maybe inject some of his own)–although Helgeland lets both him and Bozeman down late in the film with a weak key confrontation scene between the two.

This is the kind of movie 42 is:  at one point in the story, a young boy sees Robinson play and vows that one day, he too will become a big league ballplayer, and just when you think “what a cliche,” it turns out in the end credits that this was a real incident and the boy really did get to the major leagues.  42 isn’t untruthful.  But what filmmakers leave out can be as important as what they put in, and in 42, they’ve left out the interesting complications that lay behind even the most famous history.  To give the film its seemingly unavoidable baseball analog, it’s a solid double, but it never clears the bases.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."