After seeing the All-American heart-tugging baseball movie 42, I was hoping to get a good sense of the man who broke racial barriers in professional American baseball as the first black major league player in 1947. But this is what I get: Jackie Robinson was basically a saint. He was a handsome, athletic young man, proud and stalwart. He knew adversity from playing in the South, even though he was a California boy, where he was an athlete at a university where races competed side-by-side. He had a beautiful wife that seemingly waited for him on the sidewalk every day to come home, so that she could make out with him. He also apparently had a full orchestra following him around at all times to punctuate his every moment and mood.
But who was Jackie Robinson, other than an iconic hero, who represents the shattering of racial barriers in professional sports? It’s kind of hard to tell.
42 is a glossy, old-school-style baseball movie, where trumpets literally blare when a ball is hit, and runners trot in triumphant slow motion around the bases when a home run is slammed out of the park. We are introduced to Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) through a moment of square-jawed defiance as he is refused the restroom at a Southern gas station. The spirit, and the fact that he is a hell of a player in the Negro leagues, gets the attention of Brooklyn Dodgers’ owner Branch Rickey (scene- and cigar-chewing Harrison Ford, now old enough to play the curmudgeon role). He is recruited by Rickey to be the first black player in the major leagues, but it ain’t going to be easy.
Despite tackling a hot button issue like race, 42 manages to be a completely bland film. It is not that it tiptoes around the subject (since, really, race IS the subject), but it carefully holds it at a bit of a distance, as though to portray it with utmost sensitivity. That is, except for the one extraordinary scene where the issue truly come to life. This scene, which is excruciatingly raw and disturbing, involves Robinson at bat, getting verbally heckled by Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk, chillingly horrible). The verbal taunts are no less shocking now than they were then, so to hear the racial slurs coming from a team’s manager (of all people!) on the field is still so utterly offensive that it will make anyone squirm with disgust.
Jackie asks Rickey at one point, “You want a player who doesn’t have the guts to fight back?” Rickey answers, “No. I want a player who’s got the guts *not* to fight back.” And that is the problem with 42: It didn’t have the guts to offer a full picture, warts and all, of a fascinating person during a fascinating time in history. There’s no guts in this film, only fully-orchestrated glory, and I wanted more than that.